The Minnesota Vikings have a good amount of young talent in the secondary, but how it will all fit together this season remains an open question.
A central element to the ultimate solution is what happens with backup safety Josh Metellus as he enters his fourth year in the NFL and the final year of his contract with Minnesota. On Tuesday, June 27, Kevin Seifert of ESPN named Metellus the Vikings’ “surprise standout” of the offseason and noted that the team is looking to work him into its defensive rotation as much as possible in 2023.
“The most interesting part of Metellus’ spring was the clear effort the Vikings’ new defensive staff made to find him a place to play,” Seifert wrote. “A backup safety and special teams ace in his first three seasons, Metellus worked extensively as the slot cornerback in the Vikings’ nickel set. Harrison Smith and [Camryn] Bynum appear set as the starting safeties, but Metellus looked comfortable at nickel, and it’s clear the Vikings hope to see him on the field regularly this fall.”
Josh Metellus Earned Starting Nod Over 1st-Round Pick Lewis Cine Early Last Season
Metellus, a sixth-round pick of the Vikings in 2020, has steadily worked his way up the ranks of the Vikings’ secondary over three years of work.
The 25-year-old started his first game on defense for the team last season, filling in for Smith who sat out Week 3 against the Detroit Lions with a concussion. The starting nod came as something of a surprise considering Minnesota spent its first-round pick that year on safety Lewis Cine.
However, it was Metellus who head coach Kevin O’Connell called upon to step up when the Vikings lost their leader in the secondary. Not only did Metellus get the start, he played every defensive snap during that contest, which ended in a 28-24 victory for the Vikings.
Metellus went on to appear in all 17 games for Minnesota last season, garnering three starts. He tallied 42 tackles, including one tackle for loss, five pass breakups and one interception. He was solid in pass coverage, allowing just one touchdown and a collective 83.9 rating to opposing quarterbacks across 19 targets, per Pro Football Reference.
Josh Metellus May Take More Snaps From Lewis Cine, Other Vikings DBs This Season
Metellus didn’t play enough snaps at safety in 2022 to qualify for an official ranking among the 88 NFL players who Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked individually at the position. However, if he had, he would have been the Vikings’ best safety by a country mile.
According to PFF, Metellus earned an overall player grade of 85.1, which was 26.4 grading points better than Bynum and 19.7 points better than Smith — the team’s two projected starters in 2023. It was also exactly 25 points better than Cine. Metellus was good against the run (72.5), exceptional as a pass rusher (79.4) in a limited role in that regard, and top-notch in coverage (80.7).
His ability to play both safety and slot cornerback should earn Metellus significant playing time in 2023, and potentially several starts. It should also scare Cine considerably, as he returns from a compound leg fracture he suffered during Week 4 of his rookie campaign.
An obvious talent coming out of Georgia last year, Cine’s inability to get on the field as a defensive player speaks to a lack of mental and/or emotional preparedness for football at the NFL level. Before he was hurt, Cine played just two defensive snaps for Minnesota — hardly the return a team is looking for from a first-rounder who was also the first-ever draft pick of a new management team.
Cine’s rehabilitation is coming along well, and he should be ready to contribute this season. But for the second consecutive year, the Vikings’ front office has heavily prioritized the secondary. The addition of cornerback Mekhi Blackmon in the third round, as well as the return of defensive backs Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans at full health, is going to crowd the defense’s third level with talent.
Metellus is currently slated as the backup to Bynum at strong safety, while the job of slot cornerback in nickel coverage presumably remains his to lose. Though, Blackmon and Evans might have something to say about that before the season is over.
Meanwhile, Cine is listed as Smith’s backup at free safety, per ESPN. However, he is coming off of arguably the most serious injury of all (save for, perhaps, Evans’ concussions) in Minnesota’s defensive backfield and has less experience than any of the aforementioned contributors except for Blackmon due to his rookie status.