Xavier Rhodes usually stands in the middle of the defensive huddle, along the line, waiting to see which side of the field the opponent’s No. 1 receiver chooses. Then Rhodes follows him.
Rhodes has established himself as a shutdown cornerback, one of the NFL’s best at that position. He typically draws the toughest assignment.
That doesn’t mean the Vikings have a weak link on the opposite side of the formation. Trae Waynes has proved himself capable of handling opponent’s No. 2 receivers, a key development in the defense’s ascension to No. 1 in the NFL.
In three seasons, Waynes has evolved from underwhelming rookie first-round pick to the most improved player on the defense. He faces the toughest test of his career Sunday against Drew Brees and his cast of receivers.
“[Waynes] is playing lights out,” safety Harrison Smith said. “I just don’t think he’s gotten quite enough love [in outside praise]. You obviously have Xavier and everybody knows how good he is. When you get Trae playing the way he’s playing, it’s hard to throw it around.”
Waynes’ improvement has flown under the radar because of the star power surrounding him. He tied Smith for the team lead with 14 pass breakups, with two interceptions and four tackles for loss.
The biggest compliment comes in the form of Mike Zimmer’s trust. Zimmer has nearly doubled Waynes’ playing time while reducing the amount of help he provides him in coverage.
“There was a lot of times earlier in the year I was helping him a lot,” Zimmer said. “I’m not doing that very much anymore. So, he’s been out there on his own, and I actually think that’s part of the reason why the defensive numbers have come down quite a bit. Because of the way these corners cover on the back end.”
Zimmer is a stickler with cornerbacks. Especially young corners. He doesn’t pass out playing time like candy at a parade. Waynes had to prove himself and learn how Zimmer demands that things be done.
In particular, he needed to fix a bad habit of grabbing receivers like a Greco-Roman wrestler. Zimmer’s trust in him is reflected in playing time.
As a rookie, Waynes played only 195 defensive snaps, or 18.1 percent of the team’s total.
Last season, his playing time increased to 579 snaps (55.9 percent).
This season, he played 918 snaps (92 percent), fourth most on the defense.
“Trust is huge,” Waynes said.
He earned it by adjusting his game. Despite playing 339 more snaps, he cut his penalties nearly in half — from seven last season to four this year.
“It’s tricky coming from college and understanding penalties and how things are played and the speed of the game,” Waynes said. “You can get away with a lot more in college. Here, you can barely touch them. It’s something you have to learn from experience.”
It’s difficult to envision a better support system than being tutored by Zimmer, Rhodes, 15-year veteran Terence Newman and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray (an All-Pro cornerback as a player) on a daily basis. That’s a trove of knowledge and experience at his disposal.
Rhodes’ reputation causes teams to throw away from him. That puts additional pressure on Waynes, who was targeted 102 times this season, tied for fifth most among all NFL cornerbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The Vikings finished No. 2 in pass defense, so that plan didn’t have much success.
“Oh man, he’s showing,” Rhodes said of Waynes. “I’m proud of that guy. He’s definitely showing everyone that he can be one of the best in the league.”
Analytics websites rank Waynes among the best corners in run support. He’s an aggressive tackler on the edge, an area of his game that the hard-hitting Smith particularly appreciates.
“He’s not just a cover corner,” Smith said. “He’s out there making really hard open-field tackles in space.”
The Vikings need Waynes at his best against Brees, whose accuracy is second to none. He can make any cornerback look out of position. Waynes has quietly produced a solid season opposite the All-Pro Rhodes. A big stage against a future Hall of Fame quarterback brings his toughest challenge yet.