EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings’ secondary has the opportunity to be at full strength for the first time when the second half of the season begins on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
The cornerback position will soon become five deep with the return of Holton Hill, who served two suspensions that sidelined him for the first eight weeks of the season. The former undrafted free agent returned to practice on Wednesday and will need to be activated off the reserve list before he’s able to rejoin teammates Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes.
The return of Hill comes at an important time. The Vikings kick off a stretch of tough games against contending teams that could test their depth amid some struggles in the secondary, notably with the play of Rhodes.
“He’s a talented guy,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Hill. “He’s got the size, the length and speed. There were times he played pretty well last year. Like I’ve said before, you can never have enough corners, and we’ve got one sitting there for a while. You never know. We’ve been fairly healthy, but you never know what’s going to happen after eight weeks.”
Hill is certainly a part of that structure in the short-term should he need to fill in for Rhodes or Waynes like he did at points as a rookie. Beyond this season, when the cornerback situation becomes murky, depth pieces like Hill and Hughes could eventually take on far bigger roles.
The trade deadline came and went Tuesday without the Vikings making any moves. They fielded interest for Waynes and Rhodes dating back to free agency, but the two will remain with the defense this season. Their futures beyond this season, however, are up in the air.
Waynes and Alexander, the slot corner, are set to hit free agency next season. The Vikings' complicated salary cap situation in 2020 makes it possible that one or both will price themselves out of Minnesota, either via an extension or when they become free agents.
Then there’s Rhodes, a two-time Pro Bowler who has a $12.9 million cap hit in 2020. Given his up-and-down play this season, it’s beginning to feel like things are trending in the direction where Minnesota could ask the 29-year-old to restructure his contract or release him to save money against the cap.
After rising to stardom as a shutdown corner, Rhodes is having the toughest statistical stretch of his career. His seven penalties are tied for the most by any defensive back, and he leads the league in penalty yards per game (12.5).
According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes has allowed an opponent passer rating of 124.7 and an 85% completion rate into his coverage. In the first eight games of the season, teams were 36 of 43 passing with three TDs when Rhodes was the closest defender, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
The penalties are a source of frustration for Rhodes, who missed the second half of the Washington game with a concussion after giving up four receptions in Week 8, not including a 19-yard pass interference penalty. Zimmer voiced support for his No. 1 corner, backed by the belief that Rhodes has to play his game "like a power forward" regardless of the plays he’s been flagged for.
Maintaining that physical edge isn’t a concern for Rhodes as he enters the second half of the season.
"Just play my game," Rhodes said. "That’s all I’m going to do. Have confidence in my game and don’t change anything. I know teams are going to attack me and attack the way I play. I’ve been in great coverage, I’ve just got to finish. That’s the only thing. If I was to finish, it would be a different story. The coverage is there, it’s just I’m not finishing."
Despite some struggles in the secondary, the Vikings boast the eighth-best passing defense (224.5 yards per game) and now have the numbers to put a unit at full strength on the field.
When the Vikings drafted Hughes with their first-round pick in 2018 and signed Hill as an undrafted free agent, all signs pointed to their being able to one day take over for Rhodes and Waynes. That could make for an easier transition should financial restrictions, age and other factors put Minnesota in position to move on from their current starting corners.
The Vikings' depth is up against a stiff test in the second half against the likes of Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. The reps for Hill and Hughes give them a chance to prove they can play as well as the starters and could convince coaches they’re ready to assume that role sooner rather than later.