Second in a series on non-quarterbacks who have disproportionate responsibility for their team's success or failure this season.
The Minnesota Vikings tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks last season and still finished with one of the worst pass defenses in league history. Opposing quarterbacks recorded a 107.6 passer rating, and our friends at Pro Football Focus ranked their coverage as the second-worst in the NFL.
Given those parameters, we can safely blame the Vikings' secondary for a majority of their 2011 troubles against the pass. And that's why the return of cornerback Chris Cook -- who missed the final 10 games last season after domestic violence charges he was later acquitted from -- is so important in 2012.
The Vikings have pegged Cook as a potential No. 1 cornerback since making him their top pick in the 2010 draft. As we discussed in July, it's time for Cook to make good on their investment and patience. He seemed to agree at the time, saying he believes he has the skills to soon "be mentioned among the greats, not only in this division but around the whole league." There is no time like the present.
Veteran Antoine Winfield has also returned after a fractured collarbone ended his 2011 season, but the Vikings are counting on Winfield mostly as a slot defender and hope to bring along rookie Josh Robinson quickly on the outside.
In some ways, it's tough to make any cornerback a pivot player. No matter how well he covers, quarterbacks can always look elsewhere and exploit another weak player.
But you have to start somewhere. If Cook can develop into the type of cornerback who can be trusted to minimize damage from opponents' top receivers, it will shrink the field for the rest of the Vikings' defense. There will be at least one less place to apply additional help and a smaller area to protect.
If Cook struggles, however, it would leave the Vikings without a coverage anchor. Given its uncertain depth, the team once again would be vulnerable to big plays regardless of how effective the pass rush is. Pressure's on you, Chris Cook.