The Minnesota Vikings have had the unique experience of practicing against the Cincinnati Bengals the past two days before playing them in their first preseason game on Friday. The team’s general manager, Rick Spielman, joined KFAN on Thursday and talked about how pleased he was with the way the team has performed.
One of the position groups he seemed especially happy with was cornerbacks. The Vikings have invested a lot of high draft picks on cornerbacks over the past few years, with a couple late-round picks as well, and it seems as though those picks are starting to pay dividends. One reason for that is the hiring of Mike Zimmer, who specializes in working with defensive backs, as the team’s head coach.
Xavier Rhodes was one of the team’s first-round picks back in 2013 and he has had an up-and-down career up to this point in time. He has a great mixture of size, strength and speed for a cornerback, but he had a habit of grabbing the receivers he covers, which has led to him drawing a lot of penalties. But it appears he has turned a corner this offseason and finally gotten over that habit.
“What you’re seeing, the improvement in Xavier this year, and I’ve seen it through the (organized team activities) and minicamps, is that he’s learned how to use his length to his advantage,” Spielman began. “He has very good speed for his size, he has ridiculous size for a corner, but the one thing is he’s a lot more patient with the ball in the air. And in the past he used to get grabby with the receivers down the field. Where you saw on our Saturday night practice he had a (pass breakup) and two interceptions when we were red zone. He’s learning how to locate the ball in the air now a lot better, and he’s not grabbing the receivers as much, which I think that comes as you get more confident. I think it comes with the tutelage he’s getting from our defensive staff and Zim.”
Another player that has had a lot of problems grabbing the receivers he is covering is the team’s 2015 first-round pick, Trae Waynes. Just look at the Hall of Fame game the Vikings played in last year. Waynes was flagged multiple times for defensive holding and pass interference during the game, and it was because he wasn’t used to playing cornerback in the NFL yet.
In college, cornerbacks are allowed to get away with a lot of contact and holding of receivers, but not so much in the NFL. The rules tend to favor the offense at the professional level and that is something that a lot of cornerbacks really struggle with when they first get drafted.
“I remember, most college DBs are going to get grabby because they let them get away with a little bit more at the collegiate level than they do up here, and I remember the Hall of Fame game, I think he got called four times for (pass interference or holding) down the field,” Spielman said of Waynes. “In great position and there’s not a receiver that I’ve seen yet that’s going to outrun him deep. But Zim’s really been harping on him: ‘Don’t let your receiver catch the ball.’ It’s just like all these other corners, like Xavier, when they get comfortable with what they’re being taught they don’t have to think. They can use their natural instincts and reaction; they make plays. That’s all part of the process as these young corners come up, but very excited about this group that we have.”
Waynes was forced to sit behind Terence Newman for most of his rookie season and really only saw the field when he was filling in for injured players. Newman was one of the players who did not make the trip to Cincinnati with the Vikings because he was recovering from an injury, which meant it was a golden opportunity for the Waynes to show the coaches what he had to offer.
Unfortunately for him, though, he was unable to do much as he was dealing with dehydration through most of the Wednesday practice. Instead, a player that really stepped up and showed what he had to offer was a seventh-round pick from the 2014 draft, Jabari Price.
“He had a great OTA and minicamp. He had a solid camp and the coaches preach to these players all the time, ‘You don’t know when your number’s going to get called,”’ Spielman said. “Yesterday, all of a sudden we had a bunch of guys, because we had some guys get dehydrated, we left a lot of guys back for treatment, all of a sudden they’re getting more reps than they’ve ever got since they’ve been here, and that’s what’s exciting to see. How do they respond when they get their opportunity? Do they just blend in, or are they going to do things that maybe grab your attention? Jabari was one of those kids that really jumped out a little bit yesterday.”
Another player who seemed to be able to take advantage of the increased number of reps was Mackensie Alexander, the team’s second-round pick this offseason. The big knock against him entering the draft, apart from his height, was that he didn’t record a single interception in college. He seems to be showing coaches that it was more of an oddity than a regularity, though, as he was able to have a nice interception during the joint practice Wednesday.
He has also had several pass breakups throughout training camp, but, like most young cornerbacks, there are numerous things he needs to clean up when it comes to his techniques.
“When we watched him and evaluated him down in Clemson, everybody was ripping him because he didn’t have many interceptions, but what we judge it on is, is his guy catching the ball? And that’s all Zim wants to know,” Spielman explained. “And his guy rarely caught the ball when you watch it on tape. And he didn’t get a lot of opportunities because a lot of teams didn’t throw his way, but he’s going to get tested here and you’re seeing a lot of the same things you saw in college. That he has the ability to locate the ball and not let the receiver catch the ball. Now, he’s got a ways to go with technique and getting more comfortable with the scheme, just like every other rookie that we have right now, and it’s a maturation process, but he has that innate ability to make plays when the ball’s in the air.”
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The Bengals have A.J. Green, who is one of the best receivers in the NFL. It’s a great test for the Vikings cornerbacks, as they not only have to go up against them during team drills, but also the different one-on-one drills they do throughout practice.
The receivers are going to make a lot of plays during all the different drills, it’s just the nature of the NFL, but the Vikings corners have really been able to hold their own, by all accounts. But the real test will be during the preseason games. That’s where Spielman and the coaching staff will really be able to evaluate the progress they have made, and that all starts on Friday.