The last five players to leave the Winter Park practice field during Wednesday’s organized team activities were four eager rookies and a second-year player who’s trying to make people forget just how well Antoine Winfield played slot cornerback in the Vikings’ nickel defense the past nine seasons.
“Those are some big shoes to fill,” cornerback Josh Robinson said after putting in a little more post-practice overtime. “That’s for darn sure.”
Robinson has a long way to go. How long? Well, this long:
Reporter: “What was your comfort level in the slot last year?”
Robinson: “Not very high since I didn’t really learn nickel last year. This is all new to me.”
Or this long:
Reporter: “Is it harder to play in the slot than on the outside?”
Robinson: “I wouldn’t know. I really don’t have any game-time experience with it. I think it’s something I’ll learn eventually. We’ll see.”
Or, finally, this long:
Reporter: “Did you at least play some slot corner at Central Florida?”
When the Vikings decided not to pay Winfield $7.5 million this season, they gambled that he might re-sign at a reduced salary. They lost. The 15-year veteran signed with Seattle, and Robinson became the Vikings’ hurried-up Plan B for slot cornerback, a year earlier than anyone had expected.
Robinson was a third-round draft pick in 2012. He also has 22-year-old legs that make him one of the fastest players in the league. But when it comes to experience and savvy, well, let’s just say Robinson was in second grade when Winfield joined the NFL in 1999.
“You know, I didn’t really study Antoine in the slot last year,” Robinson said. “But now that I’m in the nickel, I’m watching a lot of tape of him. He’s a great player who made a lot of great plays.”
Today’s pass-crazed NFL offenses — particularly those in the NFC North — force the Vikings to use their nickel package about 50 percent of the time. And playing the slot cornerback position “requires a different mind-set” than playing on the outside, said Vikings coach and former Bears cornerback Leslie Frazier.
“In the slot, you don’t have that sideline to kind of help you,” Frazier said. “And you’re actually asked to do a little bit more from a mental standpoint, as well. When you play the slot position, we might have you involved in our run defense. … The responsibility changes. It requires a little bit more awareness. You have to be a better tackler and you have to have the cover skills.”
The Vikings’ OTAs began Tuesday with Robinson as the No. 1 left cornerback in the base defense. But that’s likely to change once rookie first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes gets up to speed. When that happens, Robinson will be the backup left corner and, the Vikings hope, the No. 1 slot corner.
“It’s a major emphasis [this offseason],” Frazier said. “We’ve started integrating him into that position now, just to find out if he can do it. We think he can, but we’ve got to get some practices under his belt and some preseason games under his belt.”
The Vikings used their nickel defense for only four snaps during Wednesday’s OTAs. Two came during 7-on-7 drills and the other two came during 11-on-11. On one of those snaps, Robinson appeared to miss a redirect jam on Joe Webb, allowing the former quarterback and current 6-4, 220-pound receiver to run wide open through a hole in the zone coverage.
But, hey, it is still May, you know.
“Two of the keys to playing the slot are reading your keys and being patient,” Robinson said. “A lot can happen inside. That’s why it’s so important right now that I keep working hard on recognizing the keys and getting my fundamentals down.”
Based on Wednesday’s defensive rotation, Jacob Lacey, a five-year veteran signed off the street, is Plan C for Winfield’s replacement in the slot. He’s a former Lion and Colt who has 36 NFL starts and went to the Super Bowl with the Colts during the 2009 season.
But first, the Vikings and Robinson are hoping some spring overtime on Plan B pays off this fall.