MINNEAPOLIS -- For years, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has been telling anyone who will listen about the value of the nickel corner in the modern NFL. Give them Pro Bowl consideration, he's said. Pay them like starters, he's added. And during the playoffs, Munnerlyn's cause got as prominent an endorsement as it could have.
During an interview on ESPN during the playoffs, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick estimated his team is in nickel or dime packages 80 percent of the time. Munnerlyn was paying close attention.
"I was like, "Yes -- that's right, Bill!'" Munnerlyn said at Vikings Winterfest in Prior Lake, Minn. on Friday. “To see Coach Belichick say that, I was pumping my fist. They are finally realizing that it’s a big position. You’re playing nickel 80 percent of the time of the game. If teams gameplan you, they might not do that; they might try to keep a linebacker out there, but this is a passing league. Everybody wants to throw the ball. Everybody wants to see the scoreboard light up so hopefully teams see that. [I'm] definitely hoping the Vikings see that because we play it a lot, I hope they value my position and value my talent and bring me back.”
The Vikings' valuation of the position will likely determine whether Munnerlyn is playing in Minnesota next year. He's due to become a free agent next month after playing out the three-year contract he signed with the team in 2014, and the 28-year-old could attract strong interest on the open market after two solid seasons in Minnesota, either from teams who view him as an every-down corner or foresee using him frequently in sub packages. He played 61.5 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps last year, despite dealing with a high ankle sprain that affected him during the second half of the season, and though he didn't intercept a pass, Munnerlyn had one of his better years in coverage.
The main reason he came to Minnesota at all was the Vikings' need to correct a move that backfired four years ago, when they parted with veteran slot corner Antoine Winfield and got burned by their ill-fated experiment with Josh Robinson in the slot in 2013. The Vikings' porous defense was a major reason why Leslie Frazier was fired after 2013, and the team signed Munnerlyn early in free agency after Mike Zimmer replaced Frazier.
Minnesota drafted Mackensie Alexander in the second round last year, but the Clemson product was used sparingly during a disappointing rookie season, and it could be a gamble to trust Alexander in the slot during his second season. The Vikings will visit with former Cleveland Browns cornerback K'Waun Williams this week, to look at another experienced option in the slot, but bringing Munnerlyn back could fill an important spot on the defense and keep a veteran presence in the cornerback room if Terence Newman doesn't return.
Munnerlyn said he was uneasy about heading into free agency in 2014, when he knew he'd be leaving the team that drafted him in Carolina. But this time around, he said, he's "counting down the days" out of excitement to see what will happen.
"I definitely get anxious, because I want to know what's my next move," he said. "I definitely would love to stay here [in Minnesota,] but at the same time, I know it's a business. I know things can get a little tricky. Money does play a little issue, but at the same time, you want to be happy. If I'm back here, I'm definitely pulling for that. Hopefully, they bring me back."