Trader Rick Spielman pulled off another surprise at the 2015 NFL Draft—he hung onto his pick at Number 11, and the Vikings drafted Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes. A Waynes pick was not unexpected, but the fact that Spielman didn’t trade back in the draft caught some observers off guard.
“As we saw the draft unfold, there wasn’t a lot of movement or a lot of trades,” Spielman told the Star Tribune. “We did have a lot of activity that came up to us, but as you sit there and went through it, we had Trae Waynes very high on our draft board, and some of the offers that we had to trade down, we didn’t feel the value was there.”
In addition to that, head coach Mike Zimmer was in the war room. Zimmer is a former longtime defensive coordinator and a defensive back specialist, and Waynes was “in his wheel house,” according to Spielman.
“We did a whole lot of work on Trae Waynes,” Zimmer told the Star Tribune. “And, to me, it’s extremely important that you have guys with great character, great leadership, they’re great competitors and obviously the athletic ability that he has—that’s always been big to me. Everybody says I love corners, but I love good football players more than I love corners, and I felt like he can help us in a lot of different ways.”
Zimmer improved the Vikings defense last season with the first round pick of linebacker Anthony Barr. And now Waynes comes to Zimmer’s defense and will have a chance to learn it from former Zimmer disciple Terence Newman, who the Vikings picked up in free agency. Newman is 36 years old, but he will serve as a great mentor and teacher of Zimmer’s defense, and Waynes will be the beneficiary.
Waynes has a lot going for him. He’s a very good cover corner, he prefers man-to-man and he has the speed to handle it. Waynes clocked in as the fastest cornerback at the NFL Combine and was rated by many as the top cornerback in the draft.
“He’s got great speed, he’s 6-1, and it’s hard to find six foot corners (although there are a few in this year’s draft),” Zimmer said. “But to get a big corner that can run and have good change of direction, they’re hard to find.”
In 2014, Waynes was named second-team All American by Walter Camp Football Foundation, Sporting News and Athlon Sports and he earned third team honors from the Associate Press. Waynes was also one of 15 semi-finalists for the Jim Thorpe award—given to the nation’s top defensive back. He had 101 tackles, six interceptions and 13 pass break ups in 36 career games.
And while Waynes at 6-1 is the tall corner that the Vikings were looking for, he is only 182 pounds. But Zimmer doesn’t appear to be bothered by his weight.
“The natural prototype for corners is 185--for the starters in the league,” Zimmer said. “He’s got good height, good speed. I don’t worry about the [weight], I worry about if they can cover.”
Waynes is not yet a complete NFL ready player. Although he is tough in coverage, he has a reputation of grabbing receivers that he covers, which is something that will get him flagged on Sunday afternoons.
“Trae has a little bit of grabby up the field, which we will have to correct,” Zimmer said. “He does a good job in press, but there are some things I see on tape that I want to address with him. He’s got the great size and length, and Michigan State has done a great job teaching these corners—they’ve done it for a long time.”
Waynes comes in after playing a lot of man defense, but he said that he considers himself able to play whatever schemes Zimmer has in mind. Waynes is excited to play for Zimmer, who he calls a defensive guru.
“[I like] the way he plays his corners,” Waynes told the Star Tribune. “I like to press, but I feel like I can play [other schemes] if I have to. I am pretty diverse and will be able to play however he wants me to.”
When Waynes gets up to speed in the Vikings’ defense, he will eventually be paired with another tall cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, who excelled in Zimmer’s defense last season. For Zimmer, the addition of another tall cornerback with speed is going to allow him to put his trademark aggressive defense on the field--even more aggressive than last season.
“Depending on how fast this guy matures and how fast this guy gets into the NFL and all that stuff, when you don’t have to really worry too much about the corners, you don’t have to give them much help, you don’t have to cheat the coverages, you can do numerous things that allow you to attack offenses,” Zimmer said. “When you have to help a guy and protect a guy or use more of your guys than you would like to, it makes it more difficult.”
Suffice it to say, the Vikings drafted Waynes and aren’t planning to worry about their cornerbacks for a while. And the same can be said for Vikings fans, as Waynes, who comes from Kenosha, Wisconsin, did not grow up a Packers fan.
“No, I was a player’s fan, I didn’t really have a favorite team,” Waynes said. “I always watched players. I liked players on the Vikings, but I just watched players.”
Joe Oberle is a senior writer at VikingsJournal.com, covers the NFL for The Sports Post and is managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine. He is an author and longtime Minnesota-based writer.