In the eighth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Vikings’ personnel entering the 2011 offseason, we analyze Minnesota’s defensive backs.
The secondary was a trouble spot in 2010 in three distinct locations: at right cornerback and the two safety positions. Rookie Chris Cook started out hot with a big training camp but couldn't stay healthy with two knee injuries, and the RCB spot was an Achilles' heel. And the safeties, which many felt might be the weakness on a veteran defense, failed to make many impact plays.
The pass rush, which was inconsistent, didn't help. But it wouldn't be shocking to see an overhaul in the defensive backfield — except for CB Antoine Winfield, who had one of his more consistent seasons. Of course, Winfield is a smallish corner and is heading into his 13th season. Eventually, someone will have to take his place.
Here's a breakdown of each of the defensive backs on the roster:
CB Antoine Winfield: Without question the Vikings' best DB, Winfield rarely was tested last season. If there was a knock, he didn't make many big plays until late in the season, but part of that was a lack of quality opportunities, too. Anyone questioning his big-play ability merely needs to watch the upset of the Eagles in December — his two sacks (one run back for a TD) were the difference in the game with a rookie QB starting for the Vikings. He also seemed to make some of his best plays in the red zone, breaking up several potential scores. On top of that, Winfield remains one of the top tackling corners in the NFL with pristine form despite less-than-ideal size. He's tough as nails and a great player who sometimes doesn't get his proper due.
CB Asher Allen: Drafted in 2009 as a down-the-road project, Allen was forced into the lineup because of injuries and ended up playing the bulk of the defensive snaps. Allen's most trouble came with tackling, and several of his missed tackle attempts ended up in long gains for the opponent. Although he battled receivers as best he could, Allen was prone to giving up catches and committing penalties throughout the season. He struggled badly but could still fit into the team's plans — just not as a starter. Remember, Allen is 22 years old.
CB Chris Cook: The early results were extremely positive in camp, as he moved from Winfield's backup to a possible starter on the right side. Despite winning that job eventually, injuries in each knee really hurt him. Head coach Leslie Frazier said at the Combine that the team never really was able to evaluate Cook fully last season because of that. The coach added that he views Cook as only a right corner for now, which means he will have the chance to start if he's healthy. He's lean, strong and superathletic and appears to have upside to grow. The second Green Bay game was a complete nightmare for Cook, but chalk that up to health and inexperience.
CB Frank Walker: A Band-Aid at a torn-up position, Walker provided about what you might expect for a player who has bounced around a lot the past few seasons: some good, some bad, little terrible. He was not bad in the nickel but did allow a few big plays that hurt the team. Chances are, Walker will find a new team, but he did not embarrass himself in his short stint with the Vikings.
CB Lito Sheppard: Another DB not likely to be back in 2011, Sheppard was expected to hold down the RCB spot until Cook was ready. Sheppard did not fare well there, being shuttled in and out of the lineup while the Vikings tried to find some combination that held up. Sheppard appeared broken down and likely will be on another team's roster next season — or unemployed.
CB Cedric Griffin: He returned much faster than expected after a knee injury in the NFC championship game and was starting to impress ... when he suffered another knee injury. It appears the Vikings still want him, but coming back will prove even more difficult, despite more time to rehab. He is a physical tackler and has improved his coverage skills over the past year and change.
SS Husain Abdullah: It was a surprise when he emerged as the starter after the preseason, and for the most part he did a respectable job. Considering his promotion from a role as a jack-of-all-trades, Abdullah played fairly well in a prominent role without a lot of help around him. He still was guilty of some missteps and will need to work on his game-to-game and play-to-play consistency. The Vikings tendered him as a restricted free agent and want him back, per sources. He could start again.
FS Madieu Williams: The thinking was that last season would be Williams' chance to show finally that he deserved the big contract he received as a free agent coming over from Cincinnati. But his third season with the Vikings might have been his least impressive. His lack of playmaking ability and consistently poor angles on tackle attempts were maddening, and it became clear Williams remained in the lineup because the team had few other palatable options. He almost certainly will not return unless Williams will accept a less expensive deal, which would be surprising.
S Jamarca Sanford: There were some who thought Sanford might be the surprise starter at strong safety, but he lacks height despite being a good hitter. Instead, his best performance came on special teams, where he was one of the best on the club in coverage. Sanford will get a shot to start again, but he's not at his best in a deep-halves defense, where he has to roam in space and diagnose quickly. His lack of playing speed is a detriment on defense.
S Tyrell Johnson: The arrow appeared to point up still for Johnson, who is a great athlete and was working out the kinks in his game. Prior to last season, he appeared to be a step away from several big plays and was considered a player on the rise. But in 2010, Johnson's confidence appeared shot — before the regular season even began. He remained on the roster but was mostly an afterthought on defense. Most of his work was on special teams, but that was not what he was drafted to be as a former second-round pick. A pivotal year lies ahead.
S Eric Frampton: A special-teams performer, Frampton didn't come alive in his few chances on defense. A journeyman type, it remains to be seen if he'll be back next season. Eminently replaceable.
Outlook: This area needs to be replenished with Winfield the one sure thing, albeit on the back end of his career. There are a few reclamation projects (Griffin, Johnson) who could surprise, and Cook is a young player with upside. But this group could use a starting safety to solidify that position and more depth at corner. Playing a cover-2 system can hide some shortcomings, but not this many.