Newest Vikings Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander should help beef up secondary

When safety Xavier Woods was preparing for a game last November for Dallas against the Vikings, he did more than just focus on their offense. He took a long look at five-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith.

Now, Woods won’t have to rely on film to study Smith. He’ll see him up close on the practice field.

Woods agreed to terms as a free agent on Saturday, and signed Monday with the Vikings to most likely be their starting free safety alongside Smith, their strong safety. Woods and cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who agreed to terms Friday to return to Minnesota and also signed Monday, spoke to the media on Zoom calls from the TCO Performance Center in Eagan.

“Just as much as I was preparing for Minnesota’s offense, I was watching Harrison,” Woods said of film study before the Cowboys’ 31-28 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 22. “That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here, to be able to learn from him, be able to play (with him). And not only Harrison, but (Patrick Peterson).”

The Vikings signed Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback, to a one-year, $9 million deal last week. Then they added Alexander to a one-year, $1.1275 million contract and Woods to a one-year deal that is worth a guaranteed $1.75 million and could be worth as much as $2.25 million with incentives.

The Vikings have been upgrading their secondary after a season in which defensive struggles persisted. They went with many young players, including rookie starting cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. That happened in part due to cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Alexander leaving as free agents before last season for Cincinnati.

Alexander had a so-so 2020 season after signing a one-year, $4 million contract with the Bengals. Alexander, who took a huge pay cut in getting the minimum of $990,000 with a signing bonus of $137,500, didn’t offer many specifics about his decision to leave Minnesota after his 2016-19 stint and then return.

“We’re all looking at the big picture, the big piece, and getting this thing done as a unit,” he said. “That’s why I’m back. Big picture. … I’m happy to be back and (ready to) build something special here and getting things back to where they need to be.”

Alexander, 27, had an up-and-down relationship with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, but said he’s matured. He said one reason he wanted to return was that “you want to be coached (by) somebody who’s going to stay on you.”

Alexander was the primary nickel back in 2018 and 2019 but said “it doesn’t matter” how he’s used in 2021. He could battle Gladney for the spot and perhaps Mike Hughes, too, if he remains on the roster. A source said Monday that Hughes, who could be in jeopardy of being cut, is now fully healthy after being on injured reserve the final 10 weeks last season with a neck injury.

There is more clarity with Woods, 25. He is expected to replace Anthony Harris, who signed as a free agent with Philadelphia.

“The Vikings wanted me,” Woods said, “I talked to (Zimmer) and he told me that I had an opportunity to come and play. That’s all I can ask for.”

Woods said he likes Zimmer’s scheme and “knowing a familiar face” in first-year defensive backs coach Karl Scott. Scott was safeties coach at Louisiana Tech when Woods was there in 2015.

After being a sixth-round draft pick in 2017, Woods started 48 of the 60 games he played in four seasons with the Cowboys. He started all 15 games he played in 2020, but was rated just No. 45 among NFL safeties by Pro Football Focus after being No. 24 in 2019.

“Personally, I feel like I didn’t have a good season at all,” he said. “Not to my standards. I’ve reviewed it and now know what I need to work on to not be in that situation again.”

Woods said he missed some interceptions and was out of position to make some tackles in 2020, and now must prepare better. Perhaps being able to learn from Smith will help.

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