Building a No. 1 defense: Vikings can never have enough corners

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer used an analogy to portray the high regard in which he holds the cornerback position just as he was set to introduce his newest corner, first-round pick Mike Hughes, the day after Hughes was drafted.

"A famous, old coach called me this morning and said that one of the reasons he likes me is because he understands that you can never have too many cornerbacks," Zimmer said on April 27. "There's a commercial on TV right now where the lady asks this guy how many guns he needs, and he says ‘Just one more.' That's how we feel about corners -- just one more. So as many times as we can find guys that can cover around here, the more we want."

The NFL's No. 1 defense last season, Minnesota has prioritized its secondary, leading to selecting Hughes with the 30th pick in the draft. The former Central Florida standout is the fifth defensive back selected in the first or second round since Rick Spielman became general manager in 2012. Between cornerbacks Hughes, Trae Waynes (2015) and Xavier Rhodes (2013) and safety Harrison Smith (2012), the Vikings defensive backfield boasts four first-round draft picks (five total on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Anthony Barr). Minnesota also spent a second-round pick on cornerback Mackensie Alexander in 2016.

The team that has loaded up the most at the position over the past seven years is Minnesota's heated NFC North rival. The Green Bay Packers drafted five cornerbacks in the first or second round since 2012, selecting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson back-to-back last month.

But right below the Packers are the Vikings, Falcons and Buccaneers, who have each drafted four cornerbacks since 2012.

The priority placed on selecting these players early varies across the league. Seattle has not drafted a cornerback with its first- or second-round pick, while Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Tennessee and Washington have each taken just one CB from these two rounds since 2012.

The high numbers for teams such as Green Bay and Tampa Bay are due to the misses they've had at the position. The Packers might not have drafted two cornerbacks back-to-back in 2018 had the ones they selected in previous years panned out the way they hoped (i.e., Damarious Randall, who was drafted as a safety and converted to cornerback, and Quinten Rollins). In fact, cornerback depth was such a massive need for the Packers that they brought back veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency.

The same goes for Tampa Bay, which took M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round last month, as the franchise still looks to find the best fit for 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves III; Johnathan Banks, the other corner drafted during the same seven-year stretch, was traded two years ago.

But it's different in the case of Minnesota, which was able to add to its cornerback depth out of luxury, not necessity.

Since Spielman's first draft with Minnesota in 2007 (as vice president of player personnel), the Vikings' roster additions show they value pass coverage as much as pass rush. Minnesota has used more draft picks (19) on defensive backs during that stretch than on any other position.

The aspect of having "just one more" cornerback isn't just a front; it's a philosophy that has paid off in a big way and can be traced to the success the Vikings have had drafting at the position in recent years, particularly since Zimmer took over in 2014.

There's no doubt Zimmer's reputation as "the cornerback whisperer" has helped in the development of his players. Rhodes was named to the Pro Bowl in his fourth season, but it's what happened in those early years of his career that allowed him to be so successful. The same goes for Waynes.

Neither of the current starting outside corners had to fill an immediate void after being drafted. Rhodes spent the 2013 season behind Josh Robinson on the depth chart, while it took Waynes two years of learning under Terence Newman before he was ready to start opposite Rhodes in 2017.

While their predecessors were starting, Rhodes and Waynes were allowed the benefit of time to develop and learn how to play the position. Had Minnesota not drafted for depth purposes, that might not have been the case.

It hasn't always worked out that way, as are the circumstances with Alexander's situation. When the Vikings let former starting nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn walk in free agency after the 2016 season, all signs pointed to Alexander having to take the slot -- notoriously a much more difficult position for inexperienced players to grasp -- after seeing a total of 68 defensive snaps his rookie year.

He wasn't ready and got beat out for the job in training camp by Newman last year. With Newman back for his final season at the age of 40, the Vikings hope Alexander will finally grab hold of the nickel role entering his third season.

But this franchise's philosophy of having someone waiting in the wings never seems to hurt.

It's a reason why the Vikings are intrigued by their recent additions, from a first-round pick in Hughes to undrafted free agent Holton Hill. If they can find their next starting corner and give him the time to develop now, as opposed to scrambling when question marks arise -- what will happen when Newman retires or if Wayne leaves in free agency after the 2019 season, etc. -- then they're in a far better spot than if they had to take a gamble on a rookie in a sizeable role.

The rich got richer in the 2018 draft because they chose to prioritize the future of their secondary and the bread and butter of this team: the defense. But building depth and long-term stability at a position by having players waiting down the depth chart can come at a price.

Minnesota's biggest positional question mark remains on its offensive line. A vacancy was created at right guard when Joe Berger retired in March. Instead of drafting a player projected as a plug-and-play, Day 1 starter with the 30th overall pick (and there were plenty available from Austin Corbett to Will Hernandez to Braden Smith and Connor Williams), the Vikings chose to follow their "just one more" philosophy and draft a luxury item. Minnesota later took offensive tackle Brian O'Neill in the second round. Whether O'Neill is ready to play immediately this season will be determined over the next few months.

That's not to say Hughes won't have an impact as a rookie. Beyond his skill set as an explosive asset in the return game, Zimmer likes Hughes' versatility to play outside and inside corner, which could lead to an early role in some of the Vikings' sub-packages.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility," Zimmer said. "I've always kind of tinkered around with having one safety and four corners, things like that. It'll give us some flexibility in what we do in some of the nickel packages."

The rookie could even challenge Alexander for a role in the slot. Hughes already spent a part of the early offseason program learning to play inside, and should he win the nickel job, the Vikings not only have a player capable of grasping one of the most difficult positions in the secondary, they would have a potential answer in the immediate and long term: a cornerback capable of doing it all.

Still, the long-term health of the roster and whether the cost of prioritizing cornerbacks versus other more pressing areas outweighs the risk is what the Vikings will eventually be judged on -- by this season's end and by how Hughes' career pans out.

These decisions have proven to be worth it so far. Will it remain that way in the future?