Sunday, March 29, 2015
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Last season, Josh Robinson was called on to replace Vikings veteran Antoine Winfield in slot coverage—and the results were less than impressive. This year, however, the story could not be more different. With a new coaching system under Mike Zimmer and the addition of new defensive players to the roster, Robinson is able to play primarily outside and is really finding his groove.

Offseason transactions brought in Captain Munnerlyn to play the slot, and Robinson looks much more natural playing on the outside. Additionally, he fits better in Zimmer’s defensive scheme that utilizes more man coverage and boundary corners.

“I believe [Coach] Zimmer is doing a great job with a lot of things, which are all helping us become better players,” Robinson said. “Teaching players techniques that work and stressing the importance of accountability and consistency are the biggest contributors to our success.”

“Zimmer came to Minnesota with a reputation for being able to get the most out of defensive backs, and Robinson is probably the team’s most improved player,” said Star Tribune‘s Matt Vensel. “He is a young player with speed and cover skills, and his play this year is a reminder of the dangers of writing off a player after he struggles early in his career.”

Robinson’s 2014 numbers are certainly impressive. At the end of October, the CB was allowing one completion for every 12.4 coverage snaps, compared to 6.9 last season. Robinson also continues to demonstrate improved play-making skills, already notching seven pass breakups and two interceptions.

The more significant of the two picks—if it is fair to say that—occurred on Sept. 7 against the Rams. St. Louis set up at its 19-yard line with 1:13 remaining in the first half, and the play proved pivotal in the game. Robinson executed his coverage of Rams tight end Jared Cook, and the CB was able to intercept the pass and keep his feet in bounds on the way down. The Vikings capitalized on the turnover with a touchdown to go up 13-0 at the half, and they continued on to win the game. Robinson referred to Game 3 as the “most consistent and confidently” played contest of his career, and it’s clear these qualities were not a single-game fluke. The 23-year-old attributes several things to his sudden upswing in performance.

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2013 proved one of the Minnesota Vikings’ best draft years to date. The Vikes grabbed first-rounders Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson at No. 23, 25 and 29, respectively. Patterson delivered an outstanding rookie year, making his mark offensively and guaranteeing to be one of the top receivers in the game.

On defense, though, in an area where Minnesota has historically struggled, Rhodes impressed fans with his speed from Day 1.  He logged a 4.43 40-yd-dash at the NFL combine, and that explosiveness carried over into games.  Rhodes was not perfect—and has plenty left to improve upon—but he showed the kind of promise that hasn’t been seen from a defensive rookie in MN for quite some time.

Rhodes tallied 48 tackles in his debut season. Let’s put this into perspective.  Former CB Antoine Winfield, one of the best in Vikings history, had 38 tackles as a rookie in 1999. Nobody wants to put the cart before the horse, but it is an interesting comparison to draw.

At 23 years old, Rhodes struggled a bit with penalties in the beginning—oftentimes, his close coverage and quickness crossed the line, drew a yellow flag. Toward the end of November, though, Rhodes’ playing style began to level out. Physicality no longer proved the only aspect of his game, and his numbers reflected the development.  Rhodes combined for 13 tackles and eight passes defended over three games. Prior to Thanksgiving, the CB had totaled only two passes defended all season.

“[Rhodes] is starting to make more plays now,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He’s playing with more confidence. [I’m] seeing some things you’d like to see long-term […]he’s beginning to hit his stride now.”

The rookie developed a physical edge and dexterity to his game, and he looked to be finishing out the season with a bang.

“The next step is, some of those balls he’s knocking down, they can turn into interceptions,” Frazier said. “When I was watching one of those balls he got his hands on […] I was saying, ‘man, a year from now, that’s going to be an interception.’ He’ll have the confidence to not go up with one hand, but two and catch the ball. This is where he is in his development, so hopefully he’ll keep growing.”

(photo credit: www.rantsports.com)
(photo credit: www.rantsports.com)

Unfortunately for Minnesota, Rhodes suffered an ankle injury on Dec. 15 against Philadelphia. The damage sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

If Rhodes had finished out the season, he would have no doubt continued to improve with each game.  You can be sure that he will come out for the 2014-15 season raring to go. The CB left on a high note, and that confidence and energy will carry through the offseason and into next year.

Rhodes will play a major role in the Vikings defensive scheme in 2014.  Especially with a new coaching staff led by former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, fans can expect big things from the second-year CB.  Zimmer can be credited with the turnaround of Adam “Pacman” Jones in Cincinnatihe is no stranger to guiding young athletes and pulling out every bit of potential.  He comes to Minny with the defensive mind that the team needs to succeed; we can expect Rhodes to thrive under new and rejuvenated direction.

In addition, Rhodes will likely not automatically inherit the starting slot, which may actually be to his advantage.  Fellow CB Josh Robinson missed several games last season due to injury, and he and Rhodes can be expected to duel it out for the starting position when they both return healthy.  That early motivation is good for any player, and a sense of competition will hopefully increase performances and consistency.

The 2014 NFL season is a mere six months away … and Xavier Rhodes is ready to make an impact.

 

 

 

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