For a 5-foot-9, 180-pound cornerback, the release of Antoine Winfield left a big hole in the Minnesota Vikings defense. If it wasn't that sizeable, the Vikings wouldn't have tried so hard to re-sign him to a reduced contract after they released him because of salary reasons just before the start of free agency.
Four months later, the feeling of loss is mostly in the past and the intrigue of a new-look cornerback crew has some considering the possibilities with a starting tandem that could include two cornerbacks over six feet tall. Chris Cook returns to his spot on the right side of the defense hoping to stay on the field after an often-frustrating foray into the NFL since becoming a second-round draft pick in 2010.
Vying for the spot opposite Cook is Xavier Rhodes, one of three first-round picks for the Vikings in April. If Rhodes wins that spot in training camp, it would give the Vikings something they haven't had since Winfield's arrival in Minnesota in 2004 – two starting cornerbacks over six feet tall and 210 pounds. They both have the size to be physical at the line of scrimmage.
"Both guys are tall. They are long. They can go get the ball, unbelievable ball skills," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "… They're physical so you're not limited to one type of defense. You can play a variety of things, and when you can take the outside guys away it makes it easier for me to make the calls and mixing up the coverages."
Both still have much to prove.
For Cook, it's that he can stay on the field after missing 26 games in his first three seasons because of injuries and off-the-field issues. For Rhodes, it's proving he belongs in the NFL, as any rookie needs to do.
"He's got the potential. As long as he keeps working and stays focused, continues to keep getting better each and every day, the sky is the limit for that guy because he's very talented," safety Jamarca Sanford said of Rhodes.
Rhodes proved that at Florida State. He had the lowest burn rate among cornerbacks in the draft, giving up a reception on only 40.8 percent of the passes targeted to the receiver he was covering, according to STATS LLC.
"He's very confident. He's very aggressive. I like that about him," Cook said. "He's willing to learn. Those are the good things I see about him, especially him being a first-round guy. Some first-round guys come in cocky and don't want to listen to things, but he's a good listener. He asks questions. He wants to get better, and he tells me what he thinks he needs to work on. I tell him, ‘It's all a process. It's all a process.' It's his first year here, so I just tell him he'll keep getting better as the days keep going."
It wasn't long ago that Cook was asking questions of Winfield, as many Vikings defensive backs did over the last nine seasons. He was the wily veteran they looked up to on and off the field, and there is no disputing the fact that they will miss his savvy.
"Antoine is basically a living legend of football. When you get to play with a guy like him, it's kind of like, ‘Oh, man, Antoine Winfield.' I've always had respect for Antoine as a player, growing up, watching him through middle school and high school and stuff like that," Cook said. "Being able to play with him was a great opportunity, and my respect level just went to the next tier when I actually got to play with him and met him and saw what type of person he was."
Winfield has moved on to Seattle and the Vikings could be moving into a new, more physical brand of football from their cornerbacks if Rhodes wins Winfield's old starting spot. Even Winfield's closest friends on the team are intrigued with the possibilities.
"He's big, physical and likes to get his hands on the receivers," Sanford said. "That's really big – with the receiver not getting down the field he can't catch the ball. I look forward to being out there with him."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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