MINNEAPOLIS -- A year ago this week, the Minnesota Vikings cut veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, making Chris Cook the senior member of a secondary the team was gambling could work without a proven veteran in the group. Cook was entering his fourth season and seemed to take the charge of extra responsibility seriously; he went back to school at the University of Virginia over the summer, working toward his degree and making sure to stay out of trouble, and came to training camp proclaiming he was ready to have the kind of breakout season that would lead to a long-term contract.
Cook is on his way out of Minnesota a year later, heading to the San Francisco 49ers on a one-year contract, closing a disappointing chapter of the Vikings' struggles to stock their secondary through the draft. They spent a second-round pick on Cook in 2010, only to see him get suspended for the second half of the 2011 season as he battled a domestic assault charge, struggle with injuries throughout his career and fail to make plays on the ball. His 29 starts without an interception are the second most by a defensive back in NFL history, and his most memorable moments of the 2013 season came on plays he was in position to make but couldn't close out -- such as the touchdown Alshon Jeffery caught over the top of Cook's head on Dec. 1, running almost five yards holding the ball just above Cook's helmet. The cornerback stuck an arm back toward Jeffery, but never turned his head to locate the ball, and was subsequently ejected for making contact with an official, whom Cook argued should have called pass interference two plays before.
Cook is 6-foot-2 and has the size and speed to match up against big receivers, which is why the 49ers are spending a low-risk deal on the chance they can turn him around. But he exits Minnesota as the latest cornerback not to make it after being taken early in the draft. Xavier Rhodes, one of the Vikings' three 2013 first-rounders, looks as though he can play, but 2012 third-rounder Josh Robinson still has much to prove. Cook was a second-rounder in 2010, and 2009 third-rounder Asher Allen was gone after starting 21 games in three seasons. Marcus McCauley, a third-round pick in 2007, washed out of Minnesota after two seasons, and while 2006 second-rounder Cedric Griffin looked as though he'd turn into a solid cornerback, two torn ACLs ended his career. Griffen and 2002 fourth-rounder Brian Williams are the only two Vikings draft picks to start more than three years at cornerback in the last 12 years.
Rhodes has a chance to reverse that trend, and while the Vikings have had plenty of trouble pinning down safeties, Harrison Smith looks like a star on the rise heading into his third season. But the Vikings' inability to stock one of the league's most important positions stands out as a major black mark on their recent draft history. Cook's ignominious exit from Minnesota is only the latest example of it.