MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time the Minnesota Vikings were in the market for a nickel cornerback, they looked to Captain Munnerlyn to undo a mistake they'd made the year before. They signed Munnerlyn to a three-year contract in the spring of 2014, giving themselves a reliable nickel a year after their decision to cut Antoine Winfield and play Josh Robinson in the slot backfired on them. And after a rocky first year with the Vikings, Munnerlyn gave the Vikings what they'd paid for, in two solid years exclusively in the nickel.
Now, with Munnerlyn on his way back to the Carolina Panthers on a four-year deal, the Vikings have an opening at nickel corner again. The position has changed on defense, increasing the value of players like the 28-year-old corner as teams spend more time with three corners on the field. As Munnerlyn went back onto the open market, emboldened by Bill Belichick's remarks that teams like the New England Patriots were using a nickel corner 80 percent of the time, he could ask to be paid more like a starter in a five-defensive back package rather than a situational player.
With Munnerlyn gone, how will the Vikings fill the opening this time? Perhaps not the way they'd done it in the past.
They drafted the 5-foot-10 Mackensie Alexander in the second round last year -- in a move that raised Munnerlyn's antennae almost immediately -- but coach Mike Zimmer said Alexander was big enough to play inside or outside. And then he went about training the Clemson product the way he'd done with first-round pick Trae Waynes the year before: in all facets of the Vikings' defense.
The nickel corner position no longer defaults to the shortest corner on the roster, not with 6-foot-3 receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Jordy Nelson seeing extensive time there, and it's not a given that Alexander will inherit the role simply because he's shorter than Waynes or Xavier Rhodes. The Vikings could use Waynes there in 2017, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Terence Newman there, if he comes back to Minnesota on a new contract at age 39. Essentially, as Zimmer said at the NFL combine, the position has become too important to be pigeonholed.
"We don't ever change our evaluation on pass defense," he said. "We're always looking for certain traits on each of these guys, traits we feel like fit into our system. The third corner or nickelback or whatever you want to say is really a much more valued position now. They're playing 70 percent of the time. Same with the third receiver, whereas some of the linebackers are probably not as valued as much because of the personnel that they’re seeing. But we look for certain traits for those guys and I’ve always felt that you can’t have too many corners, guys that have value and can move inside and outside.
"I think when I first got in the league, everybody said the nickelbacks or the slot receivers would be undersized corners, so they’d automatically place them in the nickel category. We kind of did that when I first got here but we’ve kind of gone away from that now."
That's worth keeping in mind especially as Alexander tries to improve following a rocky rookie season. The Vikings could look for a slot corner in free agency, or they could add to their depth at the position in a deep draft for corners, but the days of boxing corners on the inside or outside of the Vikings' scheme are probably over. It means Alexander isn't guaranteed to succeed Munnerlyn simply because he's one of the Vikings' shorter corners. It might mean that there's not just one successor for Munnerlyn, and it certainly could mean the 5-foot-8 corner, who played exclusively in the nickel for the Vikings, is the last of his kind in a Zimmer defense.