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Friday, October 4, 2013
Revisiting the Vikings' cornerback problems

By Ben Goessling

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' growing pains in the secondary have been evident -- if not glaring -- during their first four games, when they allowed 1,304 passing yards and 10 touchdowns on their way to a 1-3 start. The pass defense wasn't even that bad during the first four games of the 2011 season, when the Vikings went 3-13. That year, the Vikings allowed 1,145 yards in their first four games.

That season started an overhaul of the secondary which, in many ways, might not be complete yet. But would the Vikings' early struggles lead them back in another direction?

When Frazier was asked about trying to talk the 36-year-old Antoine Winfield out of retirement, he responded by reminding reporters -- and by extension, fans -- that the Vikings knew they'd have some rough performances as they set out with a young group of defensive backs.

Josh Robinson
The Steelers attacked Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson, completing 13 of the 15 passes that were thrown his way.
"We knew going in that we’d have some new guys playing some positions and there would be some growing pains along the way, and we’re experiencing that," he said. "But we’ve got to bring them along and keep hoping that they’re going to improve, which they are."

There is good reason so much of Vikings fans' ire has centered on second-year cornerback Josh Robinson, who has struggled at the slot corner position where Winfield did his best work for years. According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson has given up 35 completions on 38 targets in the first four games of the season. Thirteen of those completions came last Sunday, when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger picked on Robinson ruthlessly throughout the Vikings' 34-27 win. He threw at Robinson 15 times, according to PFF, and connected on 13 of those throws for 140 yards.

But the belief here continues to be that if Winfield was going to return to the Vikings, it wouldn't be as simple as it seems.  It's important to remember the Vikings started this process when they released Winfield in March, choosing to part with him -- and run the risks of playing a young secondary in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford -- instead of paying him the $7.25 million he was to earn. Frazier said the Vikings have "talked about a lot of things" when asked about Winfield's possible return, and there is certainly an argument to be made that the Vikings would be 3-1, not 1-3, if they had been able to defend the pass better.

Frazier was instrumental in courting Winfield to return last April, before he signed with the Seattle Seahawks, and the Vikings have kept in touch with Winfield through the first few weeks of the season. But bringing him back would likely mean the Vikings had to find another role for Robinson, in whom general manager Rick Spielman invested a second-round pick in 2012.

Moreover, now that Winfield has had five weeks away from the game, and time to experience something other than the week-to-week grind with which he'd been so familiar over the past 14 years, he's able to consider his options. Many of his best friends in football are still in the Vikings' locker room, but he'd have to weigh that against the idea of playing out the string for a 1-3 team that stung him with a surprising decision to cut him in March -- and the Vikings would have to show Winfield how serious they were about bringing him back. In the NFL, the best way to do that is usually with money.

It could happen at some point, if the Vikings' need for a corner matches Winfield's itch to return and absolves whatever bitterness still remains about the team's decision in March, and if it were to happen, it would likely be soon. But it would be a short-term answer to a long-term problem, and what Frazier said this week was a reminder that the Vikings put together their 2013 roster with the knowledge they could have to weather some tough times in the secondary.