Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler … the names could cause even the best of defensive backs to suffer a bit of anxiety.
For the Minnesota Vikings’ young secondary, where only veteran Antoine Winfield is over 27 years old, those are the quarterbacks it will see six times this year while playing in the NFC North. Minnesota’s relatively young and inexperienced secondary will face some of the top passing offenses in the entire league this season — but not right away.
The league’s trend of going young at quarterback, with 10 starting quarterbacks this year having one year or less of NFL experience, directly influences the Vikings, who have their own second-year starter in Christian Ponder. But the schedule for the Vikings over the first nine weeks, which includes four quarterbacks making their first NFL regular-season starts this weekend, could allow Minnesota’s young secondary a chance to grow before facing the beasts of the NFC North.
“It helps your confidence get up,” safety Jamarca Sanford said. “Going against a rookie guy and then going against that guy in Green Bay (Rodgers), it’s a big difference. Rodgers is a guy that will look you off. A younger quarterback is going to look at his read and wherever he is looking, nine times out of 10 that’s where he’s going. Rodgers is one of those quarterbacks that will mess with you. He’ll look here and throw back over there blind. We start off with a couple rookie quarterbacks, that will give us confidence. Once you get that confidence, sky’s the limit for you. You feel like you can compete with anybody.”
The Vikings’ secondary, which includes Winfield (35 years old) and Chris Cook (25) as starting corners and Harrison Smith (23) and Mistral Raymond (24) as starting safeties, won’t face the likes of Rodgers, Stafford or Cutler much during the first half of the season. In fact, only one game against Stafford is part of the early-season schedule.
Minnesota will face second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert in Sunday’s regular-season opener against Jacksonville, followed by rookie Andrew Luck in Week 2. In the first nine weeks, the Vikings face three rookie quarterbacks – Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson – and six total quarterbacks who have fewer than 16 NFL starts. Second-year player Jake Locker is Tennessee’s starter for the first time, and Arizona’s John Skelton is entering his third year in the league and has made 11 starts.
“I think it could potentially help us,” Cook said of facing so many inexperienced quarterbacks early. “Young quarterbacks tend to make some decisions that a more veteran quarterback wouldn’t make. It definitely gives us more chances to make plays on the ball and get more interceptions as a secondary.”
A secondary that allowed the most passing touchdowns (34), tied for the fewest interceptions (eight), and gave up the highest quarterback rating (107.6) in the league last year underwent the expected turnover in the offseason.
The changes have left only Winfield and Sanford, now a backup, as the only players in the defensive backfield over 25. And the ages don’t even reveal the relative inexperience among the group. Cook is entering his third year in the league but has only played 12 games. The third cornerback spot will come down to rookie Josh Robinson (21) or second-year pro Brandon Burton (23), who played in 10 games as a rookie. A.J. Jefferson (24), who started seven games for Arizona last year, likely won’t play against the Jaguars with only a week of preparation since being acquired in a trade last week.
“This is the best quality depth that I can remember in a number of years,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “The inexperience as far as starts are concerned, you really can’t get around that. We had more experience in other years, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of depth that we have right now, the quality depth. You can have people on your roster in positions, but you know this is not what you want. We feel real good about what we do have. Now it’s a matter of our developing the guys we do have and letting them come along and grow together.”
As far as easing in against those younger, inexperienced quarterbacks? Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn’t sure if facing newer quarterbacks is helpful to his youthful secondary.
“I don’t know, because when you have a young quarterback, you don’t have a ton of film on that guy,” Williams said. “We don’t have a ton of film and what (Gabbert’s) doing in (Jacksonville coach Mike) Mularkey’s system. I don’t look at that as a good thing. I like to know what I’m getting. When you know what you’re getting, you have a little bit of a comfort zone, and right now we don’t with this quarterback. So, no, it’s not a comfort zone for our secondary whatsoever. I’d rather be able to prepare them for what we think we’re going to see.”
It might not be Rodgers, Stafford and Cutler, yet, but Minnesota isn’t taking anything for granted.
“You can’t look at it like that,” Winfield said. “This is football. It’s a business about winning. Even though we do have a lot of young guys, we can’t treat them like that. We’ve got to bring them along. Just like anyone else, we expect them to go out there (and) bring their ‘A’ game. When they have an opportunity, make the plays and not give up big plays. That’s what it comes down to.”
Brian Hall writes about the Vikings for Fox Sports North.