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Terence Newman brings smarts, scars to Minnesota Vikings

Photo by John Autey / Pioneer Press Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, right, tries to slap the ball out of Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson’s hands in afternoon workouts during training camp on July 27 at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

MANKATO, Minn. — Terence Newman knew he wanted to play a 13th NFL season after his Cincinnati Bengals contract expired in December, but the veteran cornerback was uncertain whether another team wanted him.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was an obvious suitor, having coached Newman in Dallas and Cincinnati, but he enlisted defensive backs coach Jerry Gray as an independent arbiter on the free agent’s viability.

“I love Terence, but I’m always a little bit skeptical about bringing my guys in because I don’t want everybody to think they’re ‘my guys,’” Zimmer said. “Jerry’s watched tapes of him for years. He says he’s good and can still play.”

Gray’s verdict shepherded Newman’s third go-around in Zimmer’s defense after he signed a one-year, $2.45 million contract, bringing a wealth of scars and playmaking experience to Minnesota’s secondary.

Newman is battling rookie first-round pick Trae Waynes, second-year corner Jabari Price and lurking veteran Captain Munnerlyn for the starting left cornerback job in training camp.

“Opportunity to play,” Newman said when asked what attracted him to the Vikings. “I still have to go out and make plays and make this team, but that’s what everybody’s trying to do. I can come out, compete and try to make some guys better and they can make me better.”

Newman said he liked how the Vikings improved defensively in 2014.

“Guys were flying around. It was a typical Mike Zimmer defense,” he said. “Second year we’re going to be leaps and bounds better, hopefully, and we might have a chance to reach the postseason.”

Newman will be 37 when the Vikings open the season Sept. 14 at San Francisco. Newman likely will start opposite Xavier Rhodes while grooming Waynes, the No. 11 overall pick out of Michigan State.

Ideally, Waynes wrestles away snaps and the Vikings preserve Newman down the stretch following an injury/illness-plagued 2014 season with the Bengals. If he stays healthy, Minnesota can tap a deep reservoir of knowledge he has on this defense and the league’s receivers.

The two-time Pro Bowler is third among active players with 37 interceptions. He has started 172 of 174 games, and only Oakland safety Charles Woodson has played more games (238).

Newman has been a member of five NFL top-10 defenses and played in seven playoff games.

“I’ve got some scars, some war wounds,” Newman said. “Right now the body’s not bad. I think I competed in the spring, OTAs and minicamp. Now I’m just trying to progress.”

Newman is particularly impressed with Rhodes’ athleticism as a 6-foot-2, 215-pound cover corner.

“You don’t see guys who are built like him who can move like he can. I was very impressed when I got here,” Newman said. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best.”

A stickler for details, Newman injects unparalleled professionalism into a relatively young secondary that includes returning starters Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton at safety.

“Great guy, and a smart player who can still run with the best of them,” said Smith. “He’s still making a lot of plays. He can point some things out (to) corners that don’t have all the reps, teach them things they might see.”

Added Zimmer: “He’s a great guy in the locker room. He works his butt off. He has grown up in a lot of ways, too.”

As defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells in Dallas, Zimmer lobbied to draft Newman fifth overall in 2003 out of Kansas State. He was an athletic, 25-year-old rookie after being redshirted in football and starring as a 60-meter sprinter in track.

“He didn’t know what he didn’t know,” Zimmer said. “He got thrown in the fire having to cover the Steve Smiths of the world one-on-one. They kind of ran him out of Dallas. They were just tired of him. He didn’t tackle there.

“But he played great for us in Cincinnati, and hopefully he’ll play good again.”

Last year was a slog for Newman.

Pro Football Focus ranked him 56th out of 108 cornerbacks, although Newman only allowed two touchdowns. He missed three of the last seven games with knee and ankle injuries while a virulent flu strain sapped him of 10 pounds and knocked him out of the season finale.

“That was one of the worst things I ever had in my life,” Newman said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I talked to people who said they cried when they got it. I couldn’t eat. I threw up for probably three days straight. It took me a little bit to even get through a practice.

“You have no energy. You can’t do anything. Worst part is you can’t eat. I love food. It was bad.”

Postseason reports out of Cincinnati had Newman hinting about retirement but he maintains he only speculated about whether NFL teams would reciprocate his interest in returning.

“I’ve always wanted to play,” he said.

No surprise Newman hooked up again with Zimmer.

“He’s a no BS type of guy. If he tells you something it’s 100 percent what it’s going to be,” he said. “He reminds me a lot of Parcells. He’s just a hard-nosed coach. He tests you mentally, he tests you physically, knowledge wise.

“What more can you ask in a coach?”

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