When the Minnesota Vikings drafted cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round this spring, there was the automatic assumption that, like Xavier Rhodes two years earlier, the Vikings were going to throw him out on the field immediately and have a pair of young cover corners that, if things go as hoped, would be a tandem for the next decade.
Through the first half of his rookie season, the Vikings haven’t seen the need to throw him out too much too early. They’ve taken their time with Waynes, having him play a grand total of 85 snaps, or a little more than one full game, mostly as an injury fill-in.
He has always been a starter since he began playing football but is making the transition to the pros a little slower and more carefully that he initially thought he would be. He’s found out that the leap to the NFL is a big one and he’s focusing more on getting prepared for when the call comes for him to more of an every-down player.
“It’s a very tough position,” Waynes said.” It’s something I’m working on and looking to get better at every week. I’m feeling good about our defense and I’m looking to contribute as much as the coaches will let me.”
The Vikings have been finding depth at all three levels of the defense that has helped the team put together one of the league’s best defensive unit. Key players have missed time, but the next man up has been able to get the job done consistently.
At this point in his pro career, Waynes is on that path, being asked to be a talented fill-in rather than a full-time starter. Just as several other Vikings reserves have stepped up and made impact plays, he sees that as one of the strengths of the defense and something he wants to be more a part of.
“It just shows the work ethic of this team and this defense,” Waynes said. “It’s how we practice. We practice hard for situations just like that.”
The competition for playing time is getting even fiercer for Vikings cornerbacks. The team added Josh Robinson off the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster this week and there is a decent possibility he will be active on Sunday.
That will create even more competition for field time for the Vikings’ cornerback rotation, but Waynes is looking forward to Robinson’s return because he has been a big help in being a de facto coach/mentor for Waynes while he’s been sidelined for the first half of the season.
“Josh is somebody that’s been a great person ever since I got here,” Waynes said. “He’s been helping me out just like the other guys and we’re happy to have him back.”
The Vikings may be looking to lean on Waynes a bit more this week because his calling card is his speed and his ability to mirror a receiver deep down the field. In Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper, the Raiders have a pair of impressive young receivers who have both flourished with quarterback Derek Carr.
“They pose problems for defensive backs because they have so many good attributes,” Waynes said. “They’re big, fast, strong and athletic. Both of them are capable of making a big play at any time, so we’re going to have to be ready to combat that and be prepared.”
It isn’t unusual to see teams with depth at specific positions to bring rookies along slower than they would if they were drafted out of desperation. With Rhodes, Newman, Munnerlyn and Robinson all veteran corners in front of Waynes (for now), he isn’t being forced onto the field.
As a result, there is still something of a small game-action sample size of what Waynes can accomplish, but he feels his game is improving, and when the day comes that he ascends to the starting lineup he will be more confident and prepared than he might have been had he been thrown to the wolves from Day 1.
“I think I’m progressing each week,” Waynes said. “I’m feeling more comfortable out there all the time. It’s coming along. I know I still have a ways to go to get where I want to be, but I see the progression coming.”