EAGAN, Minn. — As the world spins around them, the Minnesota Vikings can always find steady ground in one incredibly consistent fact: Their roster is so depleted at cornerback that it’s arguably their top need heading into the 2023 NFL draft.
That assessment has been true for most of the past decade, despite a commitment of draft capital unmatched in the league. They have used a first-round pick to draft a cornerback four times in the past 10 years, most in that span. The Vikings have also used two second-round picks on the position, and their total of six such selections in the first two rounds is also a league high.
But a looming scheme change and a series of disappointing draft outcomes have returned the team to a familiar position.
After hiring new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who historically has preferred man coverage, the Vikings have bid farewell to four cornerbacks from their 2022 roster: Patrick Peterson, Cameron Dantzler, Duke Shelley and Kris Boyd. A fifth, Chandon Sullivan, is unsigned. Of those six first- and second-round draft picks, only the most recent — 2022 second-rounder Andrew Booth Jr. — remains on the roster.
The glitch has spanned a transition in front offices, and current general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah addressed it in part last month by signing free agent Byron Murphy Jr. to a three-year deal that fully guarantees him $8.1 million. But math alone suggests the Vikings will be in the market for one and potentially multiple cornerback selections later this month, depending on whether they expand their current count of five total picks.
“From a pure numbers basis,” Adofo-Mensah said, “obviously we’re going to add some people there.”
The Vikings signed Murphy, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Arizona Cardinals, in part because he can play both outside and in the nickel. In theory, that versatility would support the younger players who appear destined to play around him, including Booth and Akayleb Evans, a 2022 fourth-round pick.
In a perfect world, Booth and Evans would step into at least prominent roles in their second seasons. But both encountered the type of challenges as rookies that fit right into the Vikings’ decade-long curse at the position. Booth appeared in only six games because of a series of injuries that ended his season in Week 10, while Evans played in 10 games but suffered through three concussions that ultimately ended his season early as well. In all, the Vikings allowed an 84.2 Total Quarterback Rating when opponents targeted wide receivers, second-worst, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Vikings have been encouraged by the progress of both players this offseason, but Adofo-Mensah made clear “this sport isn’t about flashes or one play. It’s about showing consistency over a lot of plays. That’s ultimately the challenge that every young player has and we’re really excited [about them].”
Just watch what I do this season https://t.co/g5Bj41ciiP
— Akayleb Evans (@AkaylebEvans) April 13, 2023
But even so, there is no credible depth behind them. It’s a problem the Vikings have been trying to address since 2013, when they used one of their three first-round picks on cornerback Xavier Rhodes. While Rhodes managed to put together a seven-year career with the team that included three Pro Bowl honors and one as a first-team All-Pro, their remaining attempts all fell short.
The Vikings made Trae Waynes their top pick in the 2015 draft, but he departed after his rookie contract expired. Mike Hughes was their first-round pick in 2018, but he tore an ACL as a rookie and was traded after three seasons. Jeff Gladney, the second of their two first-round picks in 2020, started 14 games as a rookie but was waived after he was indicted on a charge of assault involving a former girlfriend. A jury acquitted him in March 2022, but he was killed in a car accident two months later.
Cornerbacks drafted after the first round have fared no better. Mackensie Alexander, a second-round pick in 2016, never developed into a full-time player. Dantzler managed to start 26 games after the Vikings made him a third-round pick in 2020, but he fell out of favor last season and was inactive for seven of the final nine games.
All of which leads to the 2023 draft, where the Vikings currently have one pick (No. 23 overall) in the top 86. They have multiple positions to address, including defensive line, receiver and a future replacement for quarterback Kirk Cousins. But if they choose, they will have the option to tap into a second wave of cornerbacks at that part of the draft.
ESPN’s Draft Day Predictor, an analytic tool that factors Scouts Inc. grades and mock drafts to project the likelihood of selection order, virtually guarantees that two cornerbacks will be off the board by No. 23: Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon and Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., who excels at press man coverage, would seem an ideal fit for Flores’ defense, but the Draft Day Predictor gives him only a 5% chance of being available at No. 23.
The tool will be updated over the next few weeks, and those percentages could change. But if the projections hold, the Vikings would be left to sort through a group that includes Maryland’s Deonte Banks, Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes and possibly Michigan’s DJ Turner as they consider their options at No. 23.
Ultimately, Adofo-Mensah might choose to trade out of the first round entirely to fortify the team’s volume of picks. But one way or the other, it’s difficult to imagine them not selecting a cornerback at some point in the upper part of the draft — again.