EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Wearing Minnesota Vikings jerseys and helmets, Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes don’t appear very different. The two are the type of tall, strong cornerbacks that would have any defensive backs coach, defensive coordinator or head coach dreaming of the possible scenarios to use the two cornerbacks.
Rhodes is the rookie still trying to prove himself in the NFL and Cook is suddenly one of Minnesota’s wise, old leaders in the secondary, with a bit of proving still to do himself.
Together, they potentially form the type of combination that Leslie Frazier has long envisioned with the Vikings. Cook is listed at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds. Rhodes checks in at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. For all the savvy and intelligence Antoine Winfield brought to the Minnesota secondary, he didn’t offer the size that Cook and Rhodes bring.
The potential of Cook, Rhodes — and even Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson — has had the Vikings looking this summer at different ways to employ their secondary and varying schemes to catch offenses off-guard.
“Both guys are tall, they’re long, they can go get the ball; unbelievable ball skills,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said during the team’s minicamp in June. “So, to be able to have two guys outside … Don’t forget about Josh, don’t forget about the other guys; guys who can really run, guys who can be physical. You’re not limited to one type of defense. You can play a variety of things and then if you can take the outside guys away, it makes it a lot easier for me to make calls in terms of mixing up the coverages.”
Minnesota has long been known for running the Tampa-2 defense with Frazier having a direct say in the defensive scheme since 2007. Before becoming the head coach, Frazier was the team’s defensive coordinator. But he’s never had a pair of cornerbacks with the size and potential of Cook and Rhodes.
The Cover-2 defense remains the Vikings base. But defensive coordinators have tried offer different looks in recent years, only to be undone by the shortcomings in the secondary. Now, Minnesota believes it has the pieces to fully implement varying schemes and looks.
Cook and Rhodes have the strength to jam receivers at the line as well as the ability to play zone or man-to-man. Cook and Rhodes both say they enjoy playing physical and pressing and bumping receivers. They’ll get the chance to play press and off this season.
“We never really played too much off coverage,” Cook said. “But the biggest thing is, when you’re playing off, you have to have good footwork. It all comes back to technique. If you’re not using good technique in off coverage, you’re probably not going to make too many plays.”
Frazier, a former cornerback himself, came to Minnesota from Indianapolis, where he was a defensive backs coach. Williams followed the same path, joining Frazier with the Vikings after being the defensive backs coach for the Colts. Add in current defensive backs coach Joe Woods and Minnesota has a lot of experience in working with the secondary to try and maximize Cook, Rhodes, Robinson and Jefferson’s potential.
Robinson is only 5-foot-10 but speedy. Jefferson adds more size at 6-foot-1. The four give the Vikings hope they’ve finally found solutions in the secondary.
Both Cook and Rhodes had good summers, leading to increased expectations when training camp opens later in July. Coaches have praised Cook’s work ethic and leadership this summer. Rhodes has caught on quickly, as well. Both of them were routinely breaking up passes during organized team activities and minicamp.
For a team that tied for the league-low in interceptions two years ago with eight and was tied for 27th last year with 10, making plays on the ball could be another change.
“(Rhodes) got some hands on some balls, and he’s not giving up deep balls,” Williams said. “That’s the big thing, because a lot of guys like to sit on passes and you see them intercept balls and you say ‘Wow.’ And then a lot of balls are going over his head. But he’s not giving up either. He’s tough down low and up top.”
Rhodes was practicing a lot as the starter on the outside, particularly in nickel situations with Robinson inside, but Williams hasn’t anointed Rhodes the starter yet.
“We want to see if they can execute within the defense, take care of their assignments, play consistent football,” Williams said. “And when you play consistent football, you always have a chance to win. Whoever does that, they’ll be the starter. The good thing is when you have a lot of DBs, you can play multiple packages. And in today’s NFL pass-happy world, the nickel is a starter. He’s playing almost 50 percent and sometimes more in the base package. So you need three, four, five corners to function in today’s NFL.”
Minnesota believes it has what it takes now and the defense could be changing because of it.