Image courtesy of Vikings.com

First round picks like Trae Waynes, who was selected 11th-overall in this year’s NFL Draft, are supposed to inspire confidence when they first step foot on the field. They’re college football’s best players, and many rookies have gone on to find instant success in the NFL. Teddy Bridgewater, Odell Beckham Jr., and Todd Gurley are just a few of the league’s most recent rising stars.

For Waynes, though, the transition hasn’t been quite as smooth. His first game action, a preseason matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers in August, highlighted everything that worried analysts before the draft. Grabbiness, struggles in zone coverage, and poor short-area quickness were on full display, and it became clear that Waynes wouldn’t be an instant success in Mike Zimmer’s secondary.

Zimmer spent much of training camp mentoring and guiding Waynes, working hard to eradicate bad college habits. He’s played sparingly this season, but Waynes continues to look more and more comfortable when called upon. On Sunday, he played a career-high 31 snaps after Terence Newman’s concussion forced the veteran out of the game, and Waynes looked solid in relief.

He was targeted four times, allowing two catches for eight yards. Patience appears to be paying off for Zimmer and Waynes. Though he was flagged for defensive pass interference (a ticky-tacky call) late in the game, Waynes doesn’t look like a deer-in-the-headlights on the field. He’s building on his strong debut against the Chargers and may slowly be earning the trust of Zimmer. With Terence Newman’s recent struggles  and questionable status for Week 10, is it time to throw Waynes into a starting role?

After the win over the Rams, Zimmer commented on the play of his rookie cornerback. “It seemed like he did good. It’s hard for me to tell everything. I say I see mistakes a lot, but I thought he did well, from what I could tell,” he said. Waynes needed to play well, especially after Terence Newman exited the game. Newman, who’s been a revelation at 37 years-old, gave up the two biggest plays of the day to the Rams. Unfortunately, Newman can’t outrun Father Time forever.

As Andrew Krammer noted on Tuesday, Foles picked up nearly half of his yardage on two throws, both of which came against Newman in man coverage. Kenny Britt got the better of Newman on Sunday, beating him down the field for a 55-yard competition and a 23-yard back-shoulder throw later in the game.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 5.13.51 PM
Newman’s height and lack of speed vertical speed gave Kenny Britt the advantage at the catch point (Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass)
Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 5.18.47 PM
Newman’s short-area quickness has slowed in recent years, making it that much harder to defend the back-shoulder throw (Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass)

Newman remains questionable for Sunday’s game, possibly giving Mike Zimmer an opportunity to test his rookie cornerback against the Oakland Raiders, who field one of the league’s better receiving corps. The two teams met during the preseason, and Amari Cooper burned Newman down the right sideline for a 49-yard competition. To be fair, Cooper’s gotten the best of cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis this season, so covering the receiver is a challenge for any cornerback.

The situation is more muddled than ever with news that Josh Robinson will be activated from the PUP list. His return crowds an already talented depth chart that includes Xavier Rhodes, Newman, Waynes, and Captain Munnerlyn. In 2014, Robinson started five games and was set to either start or compete for a starting job the following year. A partially torn pectoral muscle hindered his chances, and now, he’ll look to climb back up the depth chart.

For the time being, Newman is the starter opposite Rhodes, but at what point does it make sense to hand the job to Waynes? The Vikings are in the thick of a tightly contested NFC playoff race and will need their defense to continue its league-leading play. That starts with the front-seven, but the secondary will be nearly as important when the Vikings take on teams with elite wide receivers.

I’m not sure Waynes is ready, but it’s almost a given that his name will be called down the stretch. He’s shown flashes of the talent that made him a first-round draft pick, and you have to believe Zimmer’s coaching will play a critical role in his continued development.