As we are roughly one month from Vikings Training Camp practices opening in Mankato, Minnesota, I think it is a good time to start analyzing respective positions and what fans should expect from them.
In 2009, the cornernback position was solid during the early portion of the season with Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin manning the starting positions and Benny Sapp handling the nickel position.
With Winfield out, it was up to first-year Viking Karl Paymah (signed from Denver before the '09 season) and Sapp to hold up the pass defense outside of the hash marks.
While Paymah and Sapp played solid in the absence of Winfield, it was clear that the pass defense was not the same without the emotional leader of the defense in the lineup.
It improved with Winfield back in the lineup late in the season, but he seemed to struggle with his speed due to his injury, getting beat by Bears wide receiver Devin Aromashodu for a touchdown in overtime of a week 16 matchup in Chicago that hurt the Vikings chance at acquiring the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
Then, during the opening kickoff of overtime of the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans, Griffin went down with a torn ACL. He is currently rehabbing at the team's facility in Eden Prairie, Minn.
This offseason, the Vikings have added some pieces to the position via both free agency and the draft. With the injuries that occurred last season, the team wants to be sure it has the insurance to cover the defense in case of some of the same situations arise this upcoming season.
Let's take a look at the Vikings' cornerback position heading into the 2010 NFL season.
#26 Antoine Winfield
Winfield has been the heart of the Vikings' defense ever since he signed as a free agent from Buffalo following the 2003 season.
Although he does not have ideal size for a cornerback (5'9", 180 lbs.), he is regarded by many around the league as one of the best tacklers.
His importance to the defensive unit and overall team was not felt as much as last season when he missed six consecutive games with a foot injury. The team lost two games in the six weeks he missed after originally starting 6-0 with him starting at cornerback.
This season Winfield should be much improved with having the whole offseason to rest his foot. Aside from any setback, he should be one of the starters heading into week one against New Orleans.
#23 Cedric Griffin
Drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Vikings, Griffin struggled in coverage and run support during his first couple of seasons in the pros.
Now, he is arguably the most improved defensive player in Minnesota, having improved his jam coverage on receivers and becoming a much improved tackler.
Griffin recorded 78 tackles and posted a career high four interceptions last season for the Vikings defense.
Unfortunately, Griffin suffered an ACL tear in his left knee during the opening kickoff of overtime during the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans and might start the season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) List depending on the progress he has made with his rehab during the offseason.
While Griffin's status is questionable heading into 2010, look for him to start alongside Winfield at some point during the season.
#22 Benny Sapp
Sapp unexpectedly became an important piece of the Vikings defense last season with the injury suffered by Winfield and filled in very well starting in place of the Pro Bowl veteran.
While Sapp did not record an interception during the '09 season, he did have 44 tackles and seemed to hold his own when opposing quarterbacks targeted him without Winfield in the lineup.
This offseason, he signed a new two-year deal to remain in Minnesota and should play a big role for this year's defensive unit.
As mentioned, Griffin being ready for the week one opener at New Orleans is nothing close to being set in stone, and Sapp will battle with Lito Sheppard, Asher Allen, and rookie Chris Cook for the right to start in that game assuming Griffin can't go.
#29 Lito Sheppard
Many know Sheppard from his days in Philadelphia in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl in both the 2004 and 2006 seasons.
After the 2008 season, Sheppard was traded to the New York Jets after the Eagles acquired veteran cornerback Asante Samuel via free agency.
After a 31 tackle, one interception season in New York, the Jets decided to not resign the eight year veteran and he landed in Minnesota on April 21, signing a one-year, $2 million deal.
Look for Sheppard to fight for the chance to start week one at New Orleans, but he might be the underdog for the reason that he is still picking up a new scheme in Leslie Frazier's Tampa two defense and that will hurt him when competing against other young players who have a year or two in the system.
#21 Asher Allen
Allen was drafted by the Vikings in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft and saw significant playing time this past season with the injury to Antoine Winfield.
Allen will fight with Sheppard, Sapp, and Chris Cook next month at training camp for the playing time and don't be surprised to see him get many repetitions at the nickel position in camp. He played well last year and seems to have grasped Frazier's scheme well.
His understanding of the system could set him apart from Sheppard and Cook who are new to the defense scheme this season.
#31 Chris Cook
Cook was drafted in the second round by Minnesota in this past April's draft out of Virginia after working out with the team privately in the months leading up.
He has good size (6'2", 212 lbs.), but has been criticized many times for not being physical enough in run support.
Cook's biggest obstacle coming into training camp will be grasping the speed of the pros as well as the defensive systems the Vikings run. In order for Cook to be successful in his first season, he'll need to be at work in the film room this entire offseason and camp, learning his responsibility.
While many think he has a chance to compete for the nickel position with some of the others, I feel this season will be his chance to sit back and learn from some of the players in front of him who have played in Frazier's scheme. However, don't be surprised to see No. 31 on the field during the early portion of the season when Griffin is potentially off the field healing his knee.
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