EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For the past several years, the Minnesota Vikings have entered seasons with a preferred set of cornerbacks they believed could help them negate the pass-happy offenses in the NFC North.
Inevitably, injuries hit and poor performance left the secondary among the biggest weak spots for Minnesota. The injuries became a yearly issue with players like Cedric Griffin, Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook lost for large chunks of seasons. Griffin and Winfield are gone, and the Vikings believe, again, they are entering a season with set of corners able to withstand the matchups in the division.
A big reason for optimism was the first-round draft selection of Xavier Rhodes, the tall corner from Florida State. At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, Rhodes gives Minnesota another tall corner along with Chris Cook. Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson add depth, but Rhodes’ talent has the Vikings thinking of versatility on defense.
“We’d like to be able to (play more man-to-man coverage) at times and he’ll give us that opportunity,” coach Leslie Frazier said at the team’s rookie minicamp earlier this month. “He comes from a system where they play lot of man and mixed in some zone. He should be a big plus for us.”
Cook and Rhodes both have the height to match up with the big receivers in the NFC North, an emphasis for Minnesota in the draft this year when it plucked Rhodes with the second of three first-round picks. The two also have the talent to work in varying defensive schemes.
“I think (Rhodes) has the instincts to play zone, but he plays a lot of press and he’s a shutdown press corner,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said after drafting Rhodes. “He’s as big a corner as you can get and he can run and he has ball skills, and he can run support. He fits all the things we’re looking for in a corner for this scheme.”
Rhodes, 23, was a three-year starter at Florida State. Just as importantly as his size and versatility, he brings playmaking ability to a team that has ranked among the league’s bottom teams in interceptions the past few seasons. Rhodes, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference player last year, had three interceptions last season and eight in his time at Florida State.
His ball skills come from his time as a receiver. He showed up on campus at Florida State as a receiver, but was told he’d be transitioning to defensive back He fought the move, at first.
“I was very upset because it’s hard to learn something going backwards what you’ve been learning all your life going forward,” Rhodes said after he arrived in Minnesota.
But having the perspective on one side of the ball has ultimately benefitted him on the other side. The Vikings hope he can bring ball skills to their secondary, which had 10 interceptions last season, tied for the fourth-fewest in the league one year after tying for the lowest total.
“You have to have great ball skills to be a receiver to locate the ball once it hits the air and also know how a receiver thinks,” Rhodes said. “Receivers don’t like to get touched, they don’t like to get touched at all. They don’t like the corners to touch them or anything, jam or nothing like that. So I took that on the other side of the ball.”
The other side of the ball, where he can combine the instincts of a receiver with the willingness for contact of a defensive back. He enjoys playing in press coverage and getting his hands on receivers. He can play man-to-man and also adapt to zone in Minnesota’s Cover-2 system. Rhodes gives the Vikings options.
“I’ll be anything, I’ll be anything,” Rhodes said. “(Receivers) don’t like getting tackled or hit really hard either. They just completely don’t like to get touched at all…I always had that mentality. I was the person when I played receiver that liked to make tackles, not make tackles but just try to find the contact. My coaches were always telling me I’m kind of crazy, I needed to go on the defensive side in high school. I was always a player looking for contact when I was at receiver.”
Frazier hasn’t anointed Rhodes as an immediate starter in his first season in the NFL. The rookie will have to earn a starting spot. But Minnesota will be looking for Rhodes to make an impact this season. He was drafted for a purpose and the Vikings believe he is ready to handle the NFL.
“I think so,” Frazier said of Rhodes being ready made for the NFL. “When you look at the way teams are drafting receivers now, trying to get these big receivers across the league, particularly in our division, with his skill set, I think it’ll be a good match…I think he has the game that fits what the league is becoming. Now it’s a matter of, how fast does he mature, and how confident can he be when he lines up in that first ballgame.”
There will be an adjustment for Rhodes. But Minnesota again enters a season believing the secondary to compete in the NFC North, in part because of Rhodes’ arrival.