Occasionally our weekly Key Matchup pits two players who aren’t on the field at the same time and this week’s game within the game to watch involves a pair of first-round draft picks from the same alma mater at the same position – as former Florida State star cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Jalen Ramsey square off for the first time.
Rhodes has emerged in the Mike Zimmer defense as a cornerback who can blanket a team’s top receiver and keep him in check. This season, he’s drawn that assignment against receiving stars like Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin, DeAndre Hopkins and Alshon Jeffery and has held up well against all of them.
Rhodes had already earned the respect of offensive coordinators for his coverage skill that often forces quarterbacks to look elsewhere with their pass targets, but was never known as a true ball hawk in the form of guys like Darrelle Revis (used to be), Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Josh Norman. In fact, Rhodes has studied intently the play of two of them – Revis and Peterson – in years past to find tips to add to his game. This year, however, Rhodes has four interceptions, including a 100-yard pick-six and has earned a lot of praise from his coaches, teammates and opponents alike.
Rhodes isn’t the standard shut-down corner. He doesn’t talk a lot of trash. He plays physical and gets into battles with top receivers and has the ability to frustrate them, but he doesn’t force the spotlight onto himself or spend postgame interview time reminding everyone how good he is. He’s soft-spoken and goes about his business like a pro. The only headlines he makes are due to his high level of play.
Then there’s Ramsey. The fifth overall pick in April’s draft, if you want to know how good he is, there is one simple way to do it – just ask him.
He has a personality that seems the complete opposite of Rhodes. He gets in the face of receivers and, because some teams projected him as a free safety because of his physicality, he isn’t shy about letting his emotions show – both on the field and on the sidelines.
Ramsey plays with a chip on his shoulder and has been known to get into after-the-whistle dust-ups with receivers. He made headlines early in the season with his battles against volatile Ravens veteran Steve Smith Sr. and, like Rhodes, has been asked to close down some of the best receivers in the league, including Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Nelson, Amari Cooper, and Demaryius Thomas. While he is more vocal about his own abilities than Rhodes, they are very similar in the end result of what they do – preventing big-play receivers from making many big plays.
In recent weeks, it has been clear that Ramsey has been frustrated by the current seven-game losing streak the Jaguars find themselves on. He was captured on the sidelines venting his frustration screaming, “I’m tired of losing.” He plays with a passion that coaches love and, when harnessed properly, he has all the tools to be a dominant corner.
Despite having the physical tools to win jump-ball battles, he doesn’t have any interceptions yet, but neither did Rhodes in his rookie season and that now seems a distant memory.
They may be completely different types of players in terms of how they express their intensity, but both the Vikings and Jaguars have been more than pleased by their decisions to select Florida State cornerbacks in the draft with premium picks. With Rhodes likely to draw Jacksonville’s leading receiver, Allen Robinson, and Ramsey potentially shadowing Stefon Diggs, despite not being on the field at the same time, this battle of former Seminoles will be this week’s matchup to watch.