Rhodes ‘making the leap' in 2014?

Xavier Rhodes was spotlighted by NFL.com as one to watch in 2014, and he helped his cause with an interception in Wednesday's practice.

As is the habit among media types during an offseason, lists become a way to pass the time between seasons. The NFL is the master of this technique because its season is the shortest and its offseason is the longest.

There is the top-100 players list. There are the comparisons of current players and teams to players and teams of yesteryear. But, one that the NFL's official website is undertaking is an interesting one that has a Vikings connection.

The league is currently counting down the top 25 players that they list as "Making the Leap" – players who will be much better known when the 2014 season ends than when it began.

Checking in at No. 24 on the list is Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. It can be argued that Rhodes started turning the corner at about midseason and, given the injuries that ravaged the Vikings secondary last year, Rhodes was among the most consistent players in a very inconsistent defense down the stretch.

With a new coaching staff and a new defensive philosophy, there are going to be a lot of changes on the defensive side of the ball this season. But few positions will see more change than at cornerback. When the 2013 season began, Chris Cook was the de facto leader of the cornerbacks – a mantle he acquired following the team parting ways with veteran Antoine Winfield. Cook has joined Winfield heading out the door of Winter Park, so having a new leadership role up for grabs, Rhodes has become the heir apparent.

"I've been impressed with him. He's working very, very hard. He's a good kid," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. "We've been working on his technique quite a bit. I've talked to him several times out here on the field and he wants to be good. … Xavier, he's got great acceleration. He's learning the techniques much better and he's staying on point much better."

If one was to look back on Rhodes' 2013, there were a lot of ups and downs along the way, but the biggest difference in Rhodes in 2014 is that the new coaching staff has a history of developing cornerbacks – many of whom have far less natural gifts that Rhodes possesses. Head coach Mike Zimmer has been pushing Rhodes early, trying to get him to maximize on his potential.

One sign of it coming together occurred on Wednesday morning when Rhodes stepped in front of a Matt Cassel pass at practice and intercepted it.

As with many of the Vikings' players, the expectations for 2014 are much higher internally than they will be from the national media perspective. The Las Vegas sports books have already checked in and predicted the Vikings to finish last in the NFC North. When the media talking heads start making their season predictions in the coming months, you will be hard-pressed to find many that won't pick the Vikings to finish fourth in the division.

But the exact same thing was said in 2012. Double-digit losses were expected. Hard times were all but guaranteed. But what happened? The Vikings finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. If they're going to repeat that feat in 2014, they're going to need young players to step up their game and Rhodes is front and center on that list. With the aggressive, risk-taking defense that Zimmer is installing, the pressure on the cornerbacks and safeties will be heightened because, when a team blitzes, it leaves defensive backs vulnerable.

Is Rhodes going to be one of the players that "Makes the Leap" in 2014? If the Vikings are looking to become a playoff contender this season, he may be the lightning rod that will tell much of the story. If Rhodes can play lights out, the Vikings defense will get markedly better and the organizational climb back to respectability may very well start with him.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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