Trae Waynes isn’t expected to start in the Minnesota Vikings’ season opener Monday night, but he could play a role.
Waynes, the Vikings’ first-round draft choice and the one that teammates named the fastest on the defense, is making the transition from Michigan State to the Minnesota Vikings, but veteran Terence Newman is holding onto the starting job opposite Xavier Rhodes for now.
“He’s improved quite a bit. He’s doing a good job and it’s still part of the process,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s going to be a good player.”
Waynes had a rough start to his professional career when he was flagged for three penalties in the team’s preseason opener, but Zimmer made a concerted effort to keep Waynes in the game longer than all but one other defensive player to see him work through his tendency toward too much contact with receivers outside the legal 5-yard window off the line of scrimmage.
“I think all of the preseason was good for him, just understanding how close you have to be to a guy. If I’m from that far away,” Zimmer said, indicating a couple feet, “the ball is a completion (for) him.”
Rhodes can relate to the adjustment it takes going from college to the NFL, and then getting with a defensive-minded coach like Zimmer, whose specialty is defensive backs. Rhodes had a decent rookie season in 2013, but in his early first practices with Zimmer as a head coach last year, Rhodes was often the target of Zimmer’s tough-love instruction.
The result was an impressive progression for Rhodes. Now he’s seeing the same things from Waynes, who doesn’t have the pressure to start like Rhodes did as rookie.
“Mentally, he’s coming along well. He’s getting it. He’s getting everything. He’s relaxed. He’s letting it come to him as a player,” Rhodes said of Waynes. “He’s not rushing anything. You can tell he’s not stressing over the things. He’s understanding; he asks questions if he doesn’t understand it. So mental-wise, he’s handling it very well.
“Physical, he’s pretty fast. Not too many kids, not too many guys, can get over the top of him. He’s going to be on every route. He’s gifted, so I think he’s going to come along well. If it’s not going to be this year, it’s definitely going to be in the years to come, later down the road. I’m looking forward to him being one of the top corners coming into the league, if it’s not soon, soon enough.”
Newman said when players aren’t thinking as much, they can also move faster, and Waynes is already fast. But finding that comfort zone in his assignments and techniques will be key for the rookie.
“He’s noticeably more comfortable and I think it helps also knowing the defense as well as he does now,” Newman said. “It allows him to play quicker.”
During the offseason and early in training camp, the Vikings were testing Waynes to see what he could and couldn’t handle. They had him playing both outside cornerback and inside as a nickel back. Several weeks ago, Zimmer decided it was best to have Waynes concentrate on the outside and it seems to have made a difference.
“It’s pretty difficult playing two different types of techniques,” Rhodes said. “You come from college, where you played one position that was outside. I don’t believe he played any inside, not to my knowledge. It’s pretty difficult, but like I say, he’s composed, he’s calm. He don’t let anything rattle him up. He takes to teaching and applies it on the field. He’s going to be a great guy; he’s going to be a good player when it’s his time to come. He’s going to be really good.”
Captain Munnerlyn knows the feeling of being tried at different positions. He wants to be a full-time outside cornerback, but two years ago the Carolina Panthers asked him to add nickel back duties to his roster of assignments. That transition wasn’t easy.
Newman isn’t sure if the concentration on the outside was the cause for Waynes’ strides recently; Newman just knows the rookie has improved.
“I seen a difference, period, whether it was because of that I couldn’t tell you,” Newman said. “But you definitely see the difference in how he’s understanding the defense and he’s playing quicker. He’s not thinking, he’s just playing, and it’s definitely noticeable.”
While Waynes’ speed is obvious, there is a difference between straight-line speed and transition speed. Zimmer believes Waynes has improved in breaking on the ball when it’s in the air, but there is room for improvement in recognition.
“He’s gotten better. He’s got excellent speed, he’s got a lot better,” Zimmer said. “The biggest thing that I’ve noticed about most college guys when they come, the guy will break and the ball is not there and in the NFL, when you break, you better be humping because that ball is going to get there and that’s the biggest difference for guys covering in my opinion in the NFL. The difference between a completion and a contested catch and an uncontested catch is this far (signaling about two feet). I was talking to him (Saturday), receivers want space and DBs don’t want any space between them, so that’s kind of the area where he’s working on now.”