Despite being viewed as a first-round talent who could transition immediately to the pro game, Waynes was never able to supplant veteran Terence Newman in the starting lineup.
However, with a knee injury to Xavier Rhodes that put him on the shelf for the first two games of the season, Waynes has seen his chance to shine, which has given a big boost to his confidence by translating what he has learned on the practice field and in film study to game day.
“Being in there with the other guys has helped my confidence a lot,” Waynes said. “You always want to be out there and, when you get the chance, you have to make the most of it. I think I’ve been doing that pretty well.”
Both Tennessee and Green Bay made a point to target Waynes with a lot of their passes. Often throwing underneath, Waynes led the Vikings with 10 tackles in the season opener and followed it up with the game-clinching interception against the Packers in the final minute with the game still very much on the line.
Waynes thought he was prepared to step in immediately as a starter and was a bit frustrated by his limited role in his first season with the Vikings. But, after having been a through a full NFL season, he has come to realize that, while he thought he knew what he needed to be an effective member of Mike Zimmer’s defense, he had a lot more to learn.
“I’m so much farther along this year that I was as a rookie,” Waynes said. “I under the defense a lot more and I’m a lot more comfortable with my job. I’ve picked it up. Instead of thinking it about, I’m able to just go out there and play because I understand what I have to do and what the other team is trying to do on a play.”
His play has impressed his teammates as well. They have seen him go from being somewhat tentative on some plays and following it by getting himself out of position by being too aggressive.
Finding a middle ground in between has been the key to his improvement.
“Every young player has a learning curve because the NFL is a lot more complex than the college game,” Newman said. “You can’t get away with grabbing receivers and holding onto them like you can in college. He had to learn that the hard way. But, when you watch him this year, you see a lot better technique and a lot more confidence. He’s worked hard to get where he is now.”
He will need to be on top of his game Sunday at Carolina, perhaps the stiffest challenge the Vikings will face all season. The Panthers are known for their run offense and strong defense, but they have an arsenal of passing weapons. Of prime importance to Waynes will be their outside receivers – big, physical Kelvin Benjamin and speed merchant Ted Ginn Jr.
They are very different receivers, but both are capable of making the big plays that burn defenses and make players pay for missteps.
“You’ve got a big strong guy on one side and a super-fast guy on the other side,” Waynes said. “You have to prepare yourself for both – being physical with Benjamin and being prepared to run with Ginn. It’s all part of what we have to do because most teams have different players like that.”
Preparing for players with unique and elite skill sets has been something Waynes has been working toward, but is mindful that he is likely going to get targeted until he consistently makes opposing offense’s pay for coming his way.
He has leaned on veterans Newman and Captain Munnerlyn to prepare for the big-play threats that the Panthers will be forcing their way.
Waynes has learned from the examples they have set for him – during games, on the practice field and in the cornerbacks room in film study.
“Those guys have been great,” Waynes said. “I watch film with Terence a lot and he will point things out to me – keys that players do or tendencies that teams have. They also help me on the practice field and point out technique things can make me better.”
With Rhodes back on the practice field, there is growing optimism that he will be back. The question now becomes has Waynes proved himself enough to stay on the field? Head coach Mike Zimmer said that is a possibility, but declined to say if that is indeed the plan.
Waynes has earned his stripes and gives the Vikings another option in the defensive backfield for different play calls. He has made his case when the chance arose and is looking to stay on the field even when the Vikings are at full strength.
“I’ve just been waiting for my chance to show what I can do to help this defense,” Waynes said. “We have a lot of great players on this defense and I’m just looking to do my part to make us better.”