The Vikings were always going to target a cornerback in the draft.  When Antoine Winfield was cut, it made the need for one who could contribute right away even greater.  The Vikings spent a third round pick on Josh Robinson in last year’s draft.  Robinson had an up and down rookie season, but the his future does seem to be a positive one.  That future may now be as the slot and nickel cornerback, with Xavier Rhodes in the fold.  It seems a certainty that Rhodes will be a starter come week one and will play on the outside.

Shortly after the Vikings nabbed Rhodes in the first round, there was talk that defensive coordinator Alan Williams may now be able to consider mixing in man concepts with the base Tampa 2 coverage.  If Chris Cook can stay on the field, it would give the Vikings a pair of tall, physical corners with the athleticism to run with receivers in man coverage if asked.  Because of the versatility of personnel, we may see more cover 3 (was already a staple) or man concepts and less cover 2.

Xavier Rhodes comes from a man-heavy scheme at Florida State, so it’s not difficult to find good examples of how he can bring more schematic versatility to the Vikings’ coverages.

Rhodes1.1Xavier Rhodes provides a physical presence at the line in press coverage.  His arm length measured in at 33.75 inches at the combine, third longest of all defensive backs in attendance.  With his length and height, he can physically match the size and strength of most receivers at the line in press coverage.  On his play, the wide receiver is using an outside release while playing off the jam of Rhodes.

Rhodes1.2There are numerous positives we can take away from this play that show up countless other times as well.  First, Rhodes delivers a blow to the shoulder of the receiver.  He has the size and strength to delay a receiver’s ability to get into his route.  He also has the fluidity to flip his hips in order to run with the receiver.  Flexible hips is a trait that all of the best cornerbacks have regardless of the scheme they play in.  The third and fourth frames are what separate Rhodes from your average cornerback prospect to me. He has an innate feel for when to turn his head and locate the football.  Cornerbacks that turn their head too early can lose awareness of the receiver’s position and drift.  Those that never turn their head have a tough time making a play on the ball and are prone to penalties.  Finally, Rhodes has the explosion in his legs to out-leap the receiver and get a hand to the ball at its highest point.  He’s a 6’1½” cornerback with a vertical over 40″; he’s not about to be outdone by tall receivers.

Rhodes3.1Rhodes isn’t a cornerback who gets by on physicality alone though.  He has the technique to sink his hips and backpeddle and break on the ball while in off man coverage as well.  The reason Rhodes has the potential to be a shutdown cornerback though, is that he has fantastic awareness of situation.  In this case, the Florida offense is in 3rd and 13, you can see the first down marker on the right.  The receiver wants to run off Rhodes at the top of his route before hooking back right at the marker.

Rhodes3.2Rhodes is anticipating it the whole way and sits on the top of the route, forcing Jeff Driskel to try and redirect his receiver.  Some cornerbacks struggle to grasp down and distance situations on a consistent basis.  This is an example of Rhodes knowing the situation and playing the receiver accordingly.

Rhodes3.3Rhodes also has the fluid hips (which we’ve seen) to turn and run once the receiver spins out of the curl route to freelance over the top.  Rhodes makes contact with the hip of the receiver to wedge him off the route and Driskel is forced to take off with the ball.  It’s high-level man coverage in every aspect from Xavier Rhodes.

The Vikings defense is not going to be a full-time man scheme any time soon though.  Both Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams are attached to the Tampa 2 and know it like the back of their hand.  It’s important that cornerbacks who specialize in man coverage have the skills that translate to a zone scheme.  Anyone who watched the Eagles play this year saw what happens to a man coverage guy who lacks the skills for zone coverage in Nnamdi Asomugha.  Xavier Rhodes showed those skills in flashes, which should instill confidence in Vikings fans that he can transition to a base cover 2 scheme.

Rhodes2.1The receiver is going to release to the inside with Rhodes walked up to the line before running a corner, hoping to get behind Rhodes with separation from any safety coverage over the top.

Rhodes2.2Notice the way Rhodes picks up the position of his over-the-top safety.  He’s able to identify his help and play the receiver accordingly to bracket him from underneath.  Rhodes is not trying to do too much, but trusting his help instead.

Rhodes2.3Rhodes has the receiver in no man’s land now.  He’s muscling the receiver off his route well downfield, without grabbing.  Just as importantly, he’s turned his head to locate the football in case B.J. Daniels makes a poor decision against double coverage.

Rhodes2.4Daniels, being the mediocre passer he is, does just that.  Because Rhodes has turned his head to find the football and his the fluid hips to turn and face, he’s in position to make a play on the ball.  Rhodes has a past as a wide receiver, and it shows in his ball skills.  He can highpoint the football and can haul it in with reliable hands, as shown on this play.  This is where his skillset translates to the underneath zones.  He has the instincts to play with his head on a swivel and locate receivers around him.  He can then sink underneath routes and use his ability to make plays on the ball to change games.  If the coaching staff opts to utilize more press coverage with him and Chris Cook, it’s icing on the cake.

While Rhodes has many positive traits, like all prospects he has some frustrating tendencies.  One tendency is making excessive contact with receivers downfield that will be flagged in the league.  He was not a stranger to the flag for the Seminoles.  The second is a tendency to be overaggressive and get beat by double moves.

Rhodes4.1In this scenario, Miami is in a 3rd and 9 situation.  They are trying to play on Rhodes’ aggressive tendencies by putting a double move on him while isolated on the boundary.

Rhodes4.2

Rhodes takes a step forward when the receiver cuts to the inside and gets caught flat-footed when the receiver breaks back outside.  Rhodes doesn’t have the sudden feet that prospects like Jamar Taylor and Desmond Trufant have, which comes with the territory for bigger cornerbacks.  So when he bites on a double move and is forced to fire his feet and redirect, it’s not as smooth a process as it is for others.

Rhodes4.3

 

In this case, the receiver got behind Rhodes.  He makes up for it to a degree with the long speed to recover and get himself in as good a place as possible to put off the receiver.  This ball wasn’t caught, but should have been as it hit the hands of the receiver.

I believe Rhodes can clean up some of these aspects of his game and become a terrific all-around cornerback.  As an underneath zone cornerback, he can make aggressive plays on the ball and can body up receivers inside five yards.  That means his negatives are, to a degree, hidden while in zone coverage.  The zone scheme also makes use of his physicality and technique as a tackler.  He has the size and strength to take on and shed blocks in order to set the edge.  When he arrives at the football, he does so while sinking his hips and driving through contact.  He consistently wraps up and rarely misses open-field tackles as a result.

Rhodes can, and I believe will, turn out to be the best player the Vikings brought in from this draft class.  He has the versatility to give the defense more options on the back end with a skillset that translates to the present scheme as a day one starter.  Cornerbacks with his blend of size, athleticism, and football IQ don’t come around often.  It’s really a surprise that he was still sitting on the board at the 25th pick.

Thanks to the folks at draftbreakdown.com for the video that was used.  If you’d like to watch for yourself, check out these Xavier Rhodes videos: South Florida & Miami, Wake Forest & Clemson, Northern Illinois.

 

 

 

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