Vikings counting on NFL's youngest group of corners in retooled defense

Vikings' Odenigbo, Mattison primed for breakout seasons (1:15)

Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin breaks down why DE Ifeadi Odenigbo and RB Alexander Mattison are poised to have breakout seasons in 2020. (1:15)

Mike Hughes is a seasoned vet at the ripe old age of 23.

The former first-round pick became the most experienced member of the Minnesota Vikings' cornerback group -- the youngest in the NFL with an average age of 23 years and 111 days old, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has played in just 20 NFL games, including five starts, after injuries limited his first two seasons.

Minnesota was 15th in pass defense in 2019 (233.6 yards per game) after ranking third in 2018, second in 2017 and third in 2016. The middle-of-the pack finish and declining play from their starting corners forced the Vikings to go looking for answers this offseason. That resulted in wiping the slate clean at the position.

The Vikings let Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander walk in the span of a week. Three draft picks -- Jeff Gladney (first round), Cameron Dantzler (third round) and Harrison Hand (fifth round) -- form a youth movement at the position with Hughes, Holton Hill (23) and Kris Boyd (23).

The amount of turnover would undoubtedly yield concerns and questions. But as soon as training camp started, skepticism was quickly met with optimism.

"I feel good about the corners," Zimmer said. "I've been watching them here for a couple weeks now, and I feel good about them. I feel like we've got a chance to have some good corners. We're going to feed them as fast as we can to get them ready, but I think they're going to go in there and do a good job. I kind of like this group.

"I think we've got some size, we've got some quickness, we've got some athletic ability and they seem to be smart. It's just going out there and doing it, doing what they do every day, and that's what they're doing now."

Zimmer rarely praises young corners so his optimism may offer insight into how he truly feels about their ability to go against Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson in the first five weeks of the season.

Starting over from scratch during a season with limited time to teach technique has forced the Vikings to adjust their process of getting the young corners ready to contribute.

But after months of a virtual offseason spent teaching and getting to know them, there is a belief among coaches that they will be able to retain and handle what's being asked of them.

"They are talented physically and I think they're like sponges," senior defensive assistant Dom Capers said. "They want to pick up everything they possibly can. I like their competitiveness. It's not an easy transition to go from college ball to the NFL and pick up the speed of the game. These guys, I think you'll see them get better as we go along.

"They have made a lot of progress in the short time we've had them on the practice field. The challenge is going to be having them up to speed and ready to go at the start of the season. Hopefully they'll be able to contribute in some capacity at the beginning of the year."

Zimmer said he hasn't had to change any coverage assignments or rules for his corners, a positive sign unlike in 2019 when the Vikings limited Rhodes in shadowing the No. 1 receiver and opted for a rotation.

"They've caught on pretty well," Zimmer said. "If they weren't understanding things better, we might change things around, but with the two safeties we have, we haven't had to change anything from what we've done in the past or anything moving forward."

Helping their development will be safeties Harrison Smith, who has been to five straight Pro Bowls, and Anthony Harris, who led the NFL in interceptions (six) last season.

When Minnesota's pass defense struggled in 2019, Zimmer deployed quarters coverage (Cover-4) on 12% of defensive plays, which ranked 12th in the NFL. Doing so allowed Smith and Harris to bracket No. 1 receivers and limit the vulnerabilities of the cornerback group.

Having Smith and Harris on the back end is a necessary security blanket.

"Through the whole play, they're getting their calls, giving you tips, telling you things you might not think about, just from their experience," Gladney said. "With them back there, it's a whole different game. It makes it way easier for a rookie."

Cornerbacks often ooze with swagger, but even a third-year veteran like Hughes has to work on his confidence, according to Zimmer. For Hill, who was suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 season, proving he's worthy of the chance he was given is about more than the plays he's made in camp.

"He's come back, seems to be a lot more mature this year," Zimmer said of Hill. "A lot more business-like. I told him the other day, his deal is that he has to prove he can be the same guy everyday. So come out there, I don't have to correct you on this and then next day correct you on that again."

NFL teams don't often tweet out videos of their franchise quarterback throwing interceptions in practice. It's even rarer to see rookie cornerbacks picking off QB1, but that's what Dantzler did during camp. Twice.

Dubbed "the needle" for being skinny but packing a punch when he lays a hits, Dantzler, 22, allowed just one touchdown during his final two seasons at Mississippi State. The Vikings' concerns over his 40-yard dash time at the combine were put to rest once they saw him run at his pro day, leading Minnesota to draft him at No. 89.

Dantzler had an interception on consecutive days of training camp in August, including one off Kirk Cousins with the first-team defense, earning him ample praise from Zimmer and the star receiver he was defending.

"I'd say this about that group as a whole. It's made it difficult on us as receivers trying to get open and trying to create separation. It seems like those guys are always making us have contested catches, things like that," veteran receiver Adam Thielen said. "They're doing a great job. You can tell from Day 1 those young guys -- I mean, they're all pretty young -- but I think you can tell that they're competitive. They want to win, they want to make plays, they want to do the right things, and I think you'll see those things on Sundays."

Throughout camp, Hughes and Hill have held down the outside spots once occupied by Rhodes and Waynes. Dantzler has worked his way from the second-team into rotating first-team reps as an outside corner with his long, 6-foot-2 frame.

Former TCU star Gladney, 23, ranks first in completion percentage allowed (47%) among all FBS cornerbacks with at least 1,000 coverage snaps played over the past four collegiate seasons per Pro Football Focus. He might give the Vikings the greatest flexibility on how they decide to align their cornerbacks.

Gladney has rotated in the slot with Hughes throughout training camp while also taking reps on the outside. Minnesota could very well start Gladney in the slot in its nickel defense. Only five rookies in the NFL started more than 10 games at the nickel in 2019.

It's the same role Hughes filled as a rookie before sustaining a season-ending injury six weeks into the 2018 season. As he tries to learn his own role in Zimmer’s defense, Hughes now is also relied on to bring along his young teammates at a position that hopes to be a surprising strength for a defense aiming to regain its edge in 2020.

“I think everybody feels like they have something to prove, so it’s a lot of competition in that cornerback room,” Hughes said. “Everybody’s still trying to get to know each other. Everyone’s trying to get a feel for how the league works, and how everything works just around the NFL. I’m starting to see guys get a little bit more comfortable and being a little bit more talkative.”