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March Mania

Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse leave as free agents, further depleting Vikings’ secondary

Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson (32) carries the ball while being defended by Minnesota Vikings defensive back Anthony Harris (41) and Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) during the Monday, Dec. 2, game at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Minnesota 37-30. Steven Bisig / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- At 25, Marcus Sayles is now the oldest cornerback on the Vikings’ roster. The former Canadian Football League stalwart never has played a regular-season NFL down.

Such is the state of affairs in Minnesota’s depleted secondary.

On Thursday, a source said Vikings free-agent cornerback Mackensie Alexander, their top nickelback the past two seasons, agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with Cincinnati. Also, free-agent safety Jayron Kearse, who already had indicated he wouldn’t return to Minnesota, signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal with NFC North rival Detroit.

Previous departures included both starting cornerbacks. The Vikings last Friday released Xavier Rhodes, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who was in decline and had an inflated salary. On Tuesday, Trae Waynes signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the Bengals, a deal the cash-strapped Vikings made no effort to match.

The Vikings do still have on the roster starting safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. At least for now, Harris is still around.

Sources said the Vikings last Sunday decided to place the franchise tag of $11.441 million on Harris, and then did so just before Monday’s 11 a.m. deadline. While the Vikings aren’t sure their financial situation will allow for Harris to remain on the team, they chose to franchise him to have the option of trading him for a draft pick.

If that doesn’t happen, the Vikings could decide to keep Harris on the roster for that amount, could work out a long-term extension that would push a good bit of money to future seasons or could withdraw the franchise tag and get a compensatory draft pick next year.

Another Minnesota free agent is safety is Andrew Sendejo. A source has said the Vikings have interest in re-signing Sendejo, but that could depend on what they do with Harris.

Kearse, who tweeted several times in recent months that he would be moving on, was not expected to re-sign after four Minnesota seasons as a reserve and key special teams player. He did tweet a goodbye message Thursday to Vikings fans.

“Thank you Minnesota for everything through these past four years,’’ he wrote. “Lots of great memories and friends made. I’m forever thankful for the opportunity presented to me no matter what.”

For now, cornerback is the biggest priority for the Vikings as free agency continues and the April 23-25 draft approaches. Head coach Mike Zimmer is fond of saying, “You can never have too many cornerbacks.’’

All six cornerbacks now on the roster have played two or less years. Sayles signed last January. Mike Hughes, 23, and Holton Hill, 22, are each entering a third season and Kris Boyd, 23, Mark Fields, 23, and Nate Meadors, 23, are each entering a second.

“That’s interesting me being the oldest,’’ Sayles said Thursday. “I’ve always been kind of the younger guy on most of my teams.’’

The 5-foot-175-pound Sayles was undrafted in 2017 out of West Georgia before spending time that season on the Buffalo and Los Angeles Rams practice squads. He then played two years for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, including being named a West Division all-star in 2019.

Sayles expects to play nickelback in the NFL. He believes he can help make up for the loss of Alexander, who leaves after four Minnesota seasons.

“I’m confident I can come in and immediately help the team,’’ Sayles said. “I’m really quick. I have quick-twitch muscles. I can keep up with a lot of receivers. I just think my skill set fits the nickel.’’

Hughes has played the nickel but he could be looked at as a starting outside corner in 2020. The Vikings also figure to look at Hill and Boyd as possible starters on the outside.

It’s expected, though, that the Vikings, who hold the No. 22 and 25 picks in the first round, will draft a cornerback high next month. It’s also likely they will sign a veteran in free agency to make sure Sayles isn’t the only cornerback on the roster older than 23.