- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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The most significant part of the Minnesota Vikings' offseason program begins May 26, when the team will hold 10 organized team activities and a three-day mandatory minicamp in a four-week stretch. Before that begins, we're taking a position-by-position look at the Vikings' roster, and some key battles to watch:
Position: Defensive back
Who's new: The Vikings used the 11th pick in the draft on Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes and signed 36-year-old corner Terence Newman to a one-year, $2.25 million deal in March. They also gave former Bengals safety Taylor Mays a one-year deal and picked up former third-round pick Demarcus Van Dyke on a reserve/futures contract in February.
1. Xavier Rhodes: He blossomed late in the season after some -- shall we say -- persistent coaching from Mike Zimmer, and the Vikings got comfortable enough with Rhodes to have him shadowing top receivers across the field. If he continues to mature in the Vikings' system, Rhodes could become an elite -- and eventually, an expensive -- cover corner in Year 3.
2. Jabari Price: The seventh-round pick stepped in for Rhodes on a few occasions when he left games with minor injuries. The Vikings liked the fight Price showed in rerouting receivers, and he played himself into a larger role than many expected he'd have. Price pleaded guilty to a careless driving misdemeanor in April after being arrested for drunken driving in December; he could be looking at NFL discipline if he gets in trouble again.
3. Shaun Prater: He only got on the field for four snaps at cornerback last season and would seemingly have his work cut out for him if he wants to earn a roster spot in 2015.
1. Terence Newman: This spot could easily change by Week 1; the Vikings aren't going to rush Waynes into action, but they're not going to hold him back either, and Captain Munnerlyn doesn't seem set to resign himself purely to slot cornerback work. But we'll put Newman here for now. He's got Zimmer's trust from their time together in Dallas and Cincinnati, and it doesn't seem like the Vikings would have spent $2.25 million ($750,000 of it guaranteed) to bring Newman in if they didn't plan on using him prominently. His play slipped for Cincinnati in 2014, but as Zimmer put it at the owners' meetings, Newman has always played well for him.
2. Waynes: The Vikings are hoping they've got a counterpart to Rhodes: another young, long-levered corner who can reroute receivers off the line and run with them down the field. Zimmer already is working with Waynes on some subtle technique changes he believes will help the Michigan State product's quickness, and in an ideal world, the Vikings will be able to put Rhodes and Waynes in man coverage and effectively forget about the guys they're covering. That might be a year away, though, and at the very least, Waynes won't be rushed onto the field.
3. Munnerlyn: This is a bit misleading since Munnerlyn figures to be the team's primary slot cornerback once again. But both Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman said this offseason they think Munnerlyn is probably a nickel cornerback, and the Vikings are clearly stockpiling options for the other cornerback spot in their base defense. Munnerlyn should see plenty of playing time; it just might be covering slot receivers.
4. Josh Robinson: The fourth-year corner might be on borrowed time; he showed signs of improvement last year, but the Vikings had to roll coverage to his side of the field a fair amount last year, and it still doesn't seem like they trust Robinson to lock down a receiver on his own. He'll be a free agent after the season, and while he's got all the tools to succeed as a cover corner, that's been said about him for a while. He's entering a pivotal year.
1. Harrison Smith: He might be the Vikings' best defensive player, and by this time next year at the latest, he figures to be one of their most well-compensated. The Vikings picked up Smith's fifth-year option earlier this month and seem prepared to give him a lucrative multiyear deal. A league source said the Vikings bowed out of the bidding for Devin McCourty in part because they knew they needed to budget for Smith, and the 26-year-old has put up the numbers for a big payday. He was the only player in the league last season to post three sacks and intercept at least three passes (he was tied for third in the league with five picks).
2. Antone Exum: The battle for the other starting spot figures to stretch through training camp, but Exum might have a good early angle on it. The Vikings are pleased with the improvements he's made, and they converted him from the cornerback position in part because they thought his coverage skills would fit well at safety. The fact Spielman went out of his way to bring up Exum after the draft would suggest the second-year safety is worth watching.
3. Robert Blanton: Last year's primary starter should be on notice this spring, especially after the Vikings bumped him down the depth chart at the end of the season. Blanton was adequate last season, but took some bad angles in run support and didn't seem to lock down the job. He'll have to fight for a spot this year.
4. Anthony Harris: The Vikings made the undrafted free agent a priority this spring, and Harris' nose for the ball certainly has the team watching him. He's a little on the small side, but he showed good instincts and communicative skills at Virginia and could be in the mix to start next to Smith.
5. Andrew Sendejo: He'll be a free agent after the season; his fine work on special teams might land him a roster spot, but he's probably not the coverage safety the Vikings are looking for.
6. Taylor Mays: The former Bengals safety probably will play special teams and could wind up on the field as a deep linebacker in coverage, like he did in Cincinnati.
Position battles to watch: The Vikings have two of the four positions in their defensive backfield locked down with would-be cornerstones (Smith and Rhodes). Waynes could be a third fixture in the defense eventually, but he'll be competing for one of the two spots that should be hotly contested between now and training camp. The battles for the left cornerback spot and the safety job opposite Smith figure to be two of the more intriguing races of the spring and summer. That should be especially true in OTAs and minicamp, when the Vikings might shuffle secondary combinations to evaluate a number of players.
A look at where the Vikings stand at defensive back with the start of organized team activities near.