Ready or not, Trae Waynes’ time is beginning with the Vikings. The 11th overall draft pick last year will make his third career NFL start Sunday night as the Vikings open U.S. Bank Stadium against Green Bay without lead cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who will miss a second consecutive game because of a right knee injury.
Physically, Waynes looks ready. The abilities that led the Vikings and head coach Mike Zimmer to put him atop their 2015 cornerback draft class remain. His 6-foot stature is complemented by impressive speed and worthy strength.
But the Vikings want the 24-year-old Waynes to continue growing on the cerebral side of the game. And that will get a big test against Packers star Aaron Rodgers, whose career numbers against the Vikings are gaudy.
Waynes’ grabby style of play, which worked in college, took time for the Vikings coaching staff to correct. Since they’ve backed him off to adhere to tighter NFL rules, their aim now is to build up confidence to trust himself to make plays without hand fighting receivers down the field.
“Sometimes when guys come in, I don’t know if they really understand how hard it is to play that position,” Zimmer said, “and understanding the professional game, understanding the rules of the professional game. He’s come a long way with his confidence, his technique.”
For some, confidence is only strengthened by success. Before Waynes deflected a preseason pass by San Diego’s Philip Rivers into a Harrison Smith interception last month, he needed to step through a set of rules. Two yards away from Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, Waynes took a right foot step forward to launch his backpedal, then put his left foot back shuffling feet in short steps before planting his inside hand on the receiver’s shoulder pads. Waynes made the deflection by staying in Allen’s hip pocket, turning just as he pivoted on a 10-yard hitch route.
Sixteen months into his NFL career, the Vikings feel Waynes has improved in his footwork and hand placement. Now they’re waiting on him to be disruptive. That starts with confidence, teammates and coaches say, which leads to the necessary on-field aggression.
“There’s a lot more of it than last year,” Waynes said of his confidence.
His second season got off to a bumpy start Sunday at Tennessee, where Rhodes’ pregame injury vaulted Waynes into an unexpected start. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota targeted him early and often as Waynes’ inconsistency revealed itself on a handful of plays.
“I haven’t been around too many of those where you find out two hours, three hours before the game that you’re going to start,” Vikings cornerback Terence Newman said. “So it’s definitely not something that’s ideal, but it happened and he dealt with it.”
Titans rookie Tajae Sharpe caught most of his seven passes for 76 yards against the second-year cornerback. Waynes was also overpowered at the line by veteran Andre Johnson, who shoved him to the ground before converting on a third-down slant.
“He was so close. If you look at it, he was so close,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “One step away, one fingernail away from making a play. That’s the NFL. You got to make those plays. I think this week he’ll be even closer.”
His tests only get tougher with Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson on deck. Should Rhodes not be ready next week, reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton is right around the corner.
“Got to get better,” Waynes said. “Got to be closer on plays, got to break up more passes, just got to be more consistent.”
As teammates scurried around the locker room Friday, some belted out James Brown tunes while others kept to the normal routine of lunch and laughs. At his locker, Waynes quietly addressed questions while preparing for a shower. Newman, one of his mentors, kept to himself close by.
Munnerlyn said he has seen plenty of calm personalities thrive at cornerback. He pointed to Chris Gamble, a former teammate of his with the Panthers who knew “how to turn it on” after kickoff. Gamble finished a nine-year career with 27 interceptions.
“First-round pick, made a lot of plays,” Munnerlyn said. “But off the field, he’s got the same personality as Trae — quiet, laid back, just cool.”
There will be nothing quiet about Sunday night. And the Vikings hope the on-field disruption includes Waynes.