MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Captain Munnerlyn started his first training camp with the Minnesota Vikings away from the action and on the sideline, placed on the physically unable to perform list so he could work his way through a minor hamstring injury.
Make no mistake, though. Munnerlyn will play the most prominent role in this team’s young secondary.
“I’m definitely a leadership kind of guy,” he said. “My name’s Captain!”
Drafting Teddy Bridgewater was the offseason move by the Vikings that created the biggest stir, given their decade-long quest to establish a long-term solution at quarterback.
Signing Munnerlyn in free agency was the most important acquisition in the meantime, however.
This is a defense that allowed an average of 30 points per game last year, the most in the league, and the root of the problem was at cornerback.
The Vikings abruptly dumped veteran Antoine Winfield to save space under the salary cap, and again declined to bring him back once the season started so they could add quarterback Josh Freeman.
They lost not only their emotional compass, but pound for pound their best tackler.
Winfield’s skill at playing the slot position against formations of three or more wide receivers was a stabilizing force for the group while others had their ups and downs at the outside spots.
Josh Robinson was asked to learn slot coverage on the fly and failed at it often. Xavier Rhodes emerged during his rookie year as a promising building block, but he was still raw and was frequently injured. Chris Cook had another unproductive season and was not brought back.
The rest of the depth chart was, to put it diplomatically, mixed and matched. Now with Munnerlyn in the fold and a scheme change under new coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are banking on far better performances from their defensive backs.
“We want no uncontested throws, so we want to be right up there on the receivers and limit those windows those quarterbacks have to throw it,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said.
Munnerlyn is tied with Charles Tillman for the most interception return touchdowns over the past four seasons, with five. He was credited last year with a career-high 13 pass breakups and 86 tackles.
With Rhodes entrenched at one spot, Robinson is in line to start at the other outside spot with Munnerlyn in the middle. Shaun Prater, Derek Cox and Marcus Sherels are the other returners in competition, and draft picks Jabari Price and Kendall James are also under consideration.
But while the evolution of NFL offenses has dictated the nickel defense to be used almost as often as the base alignment, there will be plenty of plays when only two cornerbacks are on the field. Munnerlyn doesn’t plan on being on the sideline for those.
“I’m never going to sell myself short in being just a nickel. I feel like I’m a starting corner,” he said. “I can be that guy on the outside. Yeah, I think it’s a job up for grabs, and if a job’s up for grabs I’m going to win it.”
Munnerlyn was attracted to Minnesota largely because of Zimmer and his preference to play physical, pressing coverage at the line of scrimmage. That fits his style well.
“That’s something I pride myself on, not letting my guy catch the ball,” Munnerlyn said.
The Vikings will need a lot of that from Munnerlyn to improve upon their greatest weakness of 2013.
“I’ve been happy with him. He’s very, very competitive. He likes to talk a lot on the field, so we’ve got to keep him reined in a little bit,” Zimmer said. “But that’s better than having to go the other way.”
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