When Mike Zimmer arrived in Minnesota more than two years ago, he was on his cornerbacks like glue in the first year of organized team activities.
These days, it’s down to a style of play more than the techniques the head coach has been preaching to his Minnesota Vikings players.
Perhaps no one was under more scrutiny in that initial season of the Zimmer era than cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The techniques were changing and it took time to understand exactly what Zimmer wanted – how to turn the hips, where the foot placement should be, and much more. Rhodes still went through his ups and downs in his second season under Zimmer, but the “cornerback whisperer” simply wants Rhodes to play to his strengths.
“I’d say early in the year he probably struggled a little bit with some of the penalties and that caused him to be conservative in the way he was playing,” Zimmer said of Rhodes in 2015. “Like I told him during the season, he needs to be a power forward, not a point guard. You have to be who you are and his game is about power and strength and physicality. And if you don’t play up to your game, you may struggle a little bit.”
Zimmer believes Rhodes has “an awful lot of ability” and should continue to progress.
Last year’s rookie cornerback, Trae Waynes, wasn’t under as much pressure as Rhodes was in 2014, his first season with Zimmer as his head coach. Waynes played sparingly on defense as a rookie but some opportunities for spot duty.
"I think he has a chance to be a really good player. Quite honestly, it was a good situation for him to play special teams, to play a little bit this year and be a part-time player, because of the fact he had a chance to learn.”
Waynes and Rhodes both benefitted from the veteran presence of Terence Newman, who signed with the Vikings in free agency after getting immersed in Zimmer’s system in Dallas and Cincinnati.
“(Waynes) had a chance to learn from a great veteran guy in Newman,” Zimmer said. “Newman has helped with Xavier and a lot of these guys. I see him being a very good football player. It's not about athletic ability with him. It's just learning the game of professional football.”
Zimmer said Newman, who is a free agent again, wants to return to the Vikings. Last week, general manager Rick Spielman said he sees Newman as more of a cornerback, despite the veteran filling in at safety in a pinch and saying he would be open to a move there.
In Zimmer’s mind, he simply prefers to label Newman as a “defensive back” for now. The head coach has heard that Newman wants to play at least another year, so there is a decent chance the Vikings would look to bring him back, but it won’t be simply as a “veteran presence.”
“We don’t want to have anybody that can’t play. If they can’t play, they can’t be here, regardless. I’ll make them a coach if we want to get veteran leadership,” Zimmer said. “But I think the coaches really like Terence and the things that he was able to do. He played good. Does he want to play 65 plays, 16 games? Or can he do that? I don’t know.”
But Zimmer won’t commit to either Newman or Waynes being the starter. In his mind, the best player wins the job.
Or maybe the Vikings will draft another cornerback, Zimmer said with a straight face.
“Maybe we draft a guy in the first round. I’ve always liked drafting corners high, because I think those guys are the guys that help you in today’s NFL,” he said. “Those are the kind of guys that kind of eliminate offenses a little bit. Them and pass rushers.”