Offseason Roster Question No. 4: Who Stays and Who Goes in Vikings Secondary?

Will Ragatz

As the Vikings climbed out of their early-2010s mediocrity and established themselves as NFC contenders under Mike Zimmer, a major reason for their success was a strong pass defense led by a well-coached, homegrown secondary. Zimmer's background in coaching defensive backs and a number of successful draft choices by Rick Spielman laid the foundation for one of the league's perennially elite units.

From 2016 through 2018, the Vikings never ranked worse than third in passing yards allowed per game or fifth in opponent passer rating, and advanced metrics like DVOA also supported the strength of the team's pass defense. With former first round picks Harrison Smith (2012), Xavier Rhodes (2013), and Trae Waynes (2015) leading the way, the secondary was a constant strength.

In 2019, that unit regressed a bit, with the most notable cause being the precipitous decline of Rhodes. The Vikings finished 15th in passing yards allowed and ninth in opponent passer rating, although they ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA and finished strong in all three categories after a rough mid-season stretch.

Now, as the Vikings head into 2020, the status of many key members of the secondary is up in the air. Let's take a look at each of those players to get a sense of their chances of being back next season, and to get an overall picture of what the secondary may look like in 2020. Remember, the Vikings also need a new defensive backs coach, as Jerry Gray departed this offseason after six years in that role.

CB Xavier Rhodes

Status: under contract for three more years

It was another tough season for Rhodes, who seems ages removed from being one of the league's best corners in 2016 and 2017. His decline from that all-world level of play began in 2018 and continued this year, as he finished the regular season ranked 116th out of 123 corners by PFF. Rhodes, who turns 30 in June, simply seems to have lost a step or two. He battled hard this season, likely playing through at least one injury, but that doesn't change the fact that he was a liability for the Vikings' defense.

No one was more frustrated by his poor play than Rhodes himself. Throughout the season, when asked what wasn't working, Rhodes seemed genuinely unsure. He always remained optimistic that he could turn things around, but it never happened. As a result, his time in Minnesota seems like it may be over. The Vikings have the worst salary cap situation in the entire league. Cutting Rhodes would save them $8.1 million, and thus seems like an almost unavoidable step towards clearing room to re-sign key free agents. A restructured deal is possible, but a fresh start for Rhodes is probably the best thing for both parties.

Chances to return next season: 20 percent

S Anthony Harris

Status: unrestricted free agent

In 2019 – his first full season as a starting safety – Harris was a breakout star for the Vikings. He led the league with seven interceptions in 16 games across the regular season and playoffs, and finished tied for second on the team with 11 passes defended. Harris's instincts and ball-hawking ability made him a game-changing player, and his tackling was excellent as well. Now he's in line for a big-time raise.

Harris was ranked as the No. 3 FA in the entire league by PFF. He's set to go from making $5 million total in his first five seasons to making roughly $13 million per year, if recent contracts to comparable safeties are any indication. Once the Vikings clear some cap room by cutting or restructuring players like Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and/or Riley Reiff, expect re-signing Harris to be their top priority. Harris, who will be 29 next season, will likely want a three or four-year deal.

Chances to return next season: 80 percent

CB Trae Waynes

Status: unrestricted free agent

If not for the presence of Rhodes, there may have been a lot more discussion about the play of Waynes in 2019. He was clearly the Vikings' best corner, but the former No. 11 overall pick also seems to have plateaued short of stardom over the past few years. Assuming Rhodes is gone, Zimmer and the Vikings will likely want to re-sign Waynes, in order to not lose both of their starting corners. But given that he'll be only 28 next season and has a lot of starting experience, he could get an offer from another team that the Vikings can't afford to beat.

Chances to return next season: 60 percent

CB Mackensie Alexander

Status: unrestricted free agent

Alexander, the Vikings' starting slot corner, is reportedly "looking forward to testing the open market," according to the Star Tribune's Ben Goessling, who projects that neither Alexander, Waynes, nor Rhodes will return next season.

Sources have said Alexander is looking forward to testing the open market, and his knee injury at the end of the season — the cornerback tore his meniscus after playing in a meaningless Week 17 game when he was already hurt — doesn’t figure to whet his appetite to return.

With that said, it wouldn't exactly make sense for the Vikings to give up on bringing Alexander back next year. If they can clear up the space to make him a competitive offer, the 26 year-old would provide stability at the nickel spot. He had a strong season in 2019, even if it doesn't show up all that frequently on the stat sheet.

Chances to return next season: 45 percent

S Jayron Kearse

Status: unrestricted free agent

A former seventh-round pick, Kearse has become a productive backup safety and special teams player. His six passes defended this year were as many as Rhodes had and more than Alexander or Anthony Barr, despite playing less than 25 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps. He sealed the Cowboys victory with an interception and made two big plays late in the Broncos game. However, his season was probably best known for a late October arrest on suspicion of DWI. Kearse will almost certainly not be back with the Vikings next year, having tweeted that he wishes the team wanted him back. Kearse has since deleted his Twitter account.

Chances to return next season: 5 percent

S Andrew Sendejo

Status: unrestricted free agent

Sendejo departed for Philadelphia last offseason after eight seasons in Minnesota, but was brought back in November after the Eagles waived him. He exceeded expectations in his return to the Vikings, snagging interceptions in the first two games where he saw snaps and filling in impressively at slot corner during the Vikings' playoff win in New Orleans. However, the 33 year-old doesn't figure to be part of the team's plans next year.

Chances to return next season: 30 percent

Players who will be back:

  • Safety Harrison Smith remains one of the league's best and has two more years on his contract with the Vikings
  • CB Mike Hughes, the team's first round pick in 2018, is recovering from a broken vertebra in his neck. He may have to slide into a starting role with as many as three corners potentially not returning next year.
  • CB Holton Hill, an undrafted free agent in 2018, is someone the Vikings are high on going forward. He was suspended for the first eight games and needs to continue to improve to see regular snaps.
  • CB Kris Boyd, a former teammate of Hill's at Texas, excelled as a punt gunner in his rookie season. Can he push for snaps at corner?
  • CB Nate Meadors figures to at least make the practice squad in 2020.
  • CFL CB Marcus Sayles was signed on January 3rd and will compete for a spot at slot corner.

Potential newcomers

The Vikings will undoubtedly look to add players to the secondary this offseason, especially with so many key contributors uncertain to return. They could take a cornerback as early as the first round of the NFL draft; Florida's CJ Henderson, for example, could be a good fit at pick No. 25. Regardless, expect multiple selections of corners or safeties. Could Minnesota's Antoine Winfield Jr. be a possibility in the middle rounds? If Alexander and/or Waynes leave in free agency, that would free up some space for the Vikings to bring in a veteran or two from outside the organization. No matter what happens, it seems pretty clear that the Vikings' secondary will look different in 2020.

The Vikings offseason roster questions series is a deep dive into the biggest decisions facing the Vikings as they look to upgrade their roster in 2020.

Question No. 1: Is Kirk Cousins the Future at Quarterback?

Question No. 2: Should the Vikings Spend Big on Dalvin Cook?

Question No. 3: How Can the Vikings Improve Their Offensive Line?

Question No. 4: Who Stays and Who Goes in Vikings Secondary?

Comments (2)

I think you have to draft a corner with that first pick and then possible trade up to get a guard and swap around to snag some other defensive players late in the draft.

No. 1-2

I think the Vikings 25th pick CB. 58th pick OG. Yes i agree but just not the defence but the whole Vikings team will look different for instance the oline if we draft a OG high he will most likely Start then Samia and Kline can battle it out for the RG. I know its just a small samplle size but the rookie OT Oduh by early indications looks like he could be a diamond in the rough.