If you want to put a frown on Mike Zimmer’s face, mention the NFL rule against teams practicing press-coverage techniques during organized team activities, minicamp and the first two days of training camp.
The Vikings coach and noted defensive backs sage has called the rule — which was part of the crackdown on offseason contact to promote player safety — “ridiculous” and harmful to the careers of young cornerbacks who need the practice.
However, if you want to turn Zimmer’s frown upside down, remind him how Xavier Rhodes has looked in his off-coverage techniques, especially on one particular play during Day 2 of the Vikings’ three-day minicamp on Wednesday.
Playing his customary right corner spot, the 6-1, 218-pound Rhodes lined up off the line of scrimmage, per NFL rules. Receiver Charles Johnson, who isn’t small at 6-2, 217 pounds, got a free release and was racing toward Rhodes as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass.
“I’m looking at [Johnson’s] hips,” Rhodes said when asked what he’s reading at that point. “I’m looking to see if he’s going to turn his hips or is he going to keep them straight and do a double move and keep going up the field.”
Johnson turned his hips inside at approximately 10 yards.
“When he turned his hips, that means I go,” Rhodes said. “So I went.”
Rhodes closed on Johnson with confidence, fluid fundamentals and enough arm length to please a defensive end.
“He’s so big,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “And he’s still learning so much. He’s going to be so good. Of course, he’s already reached a high level.”
As Bridgewater’s pass reached Johnson’s fingertips, Rhodes reached in with his left arm and swatted the ball away without getting grabby, which was an issue with him early last season.
“Reach in with my left,” Rhodes said, “and secure the tackle with my right.”
Defenders swarmed Rhodes to celebrate the play.
“I told him if he turns those knockdowns into interceptions, he’ll be elite in this league,” Greenway said.
According to Zimmer, Rhodes is different this offseason. Unlike last year, the 25-year-old corner hasn’t had to relearn how to play the position the way Zimmer demands.
“Sometimes with Xavier in the past … it would be starting over again,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t have to go back and read through everything this year.
“He can be a really good cornerback. He’s obviously got great length, he can run, he can turn his hips good, he’s physical. Sometimes Xav is his own worst enemy and he will get down on himself a little bit. But I think he feels confident about what he’s done this spring. I think he’s improved a lot in his off-coverage this spring. And we’re going to have to get back and work on bump-and-run when we get back [for training camp].”
Another thing Rhodes did earlier this offseason was step up his personal training by going one-on-one against some receivers from around the league. The Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown were two of the receivers he battled during those workouts in Florida.
“It helps a lot,” Rhodes said. “Especially those shifty, smaller guys who can play in the slot or outside. They make you work.”
Rhodes is entering the fourth year of a rookie contract that pays him an average of $1.95 million. That puts him 74th among NFL cornerbacks, according to overthecap.com. He’s behind teammates Captain Munnerlyn ($3.75 million), Trae Waynes ($3.24 million), Terence Newman ($2.5 million) and Marcus Sherels ($2 million), and former teammate Josh Robinson ($2 million in Tampa Bay).
That’s going to change about this time next year. Although the Vikings have a fifth-year option on Rhodes through the 2017 season, they are expected to ante up before then as they continue a trend of rewarding cornerstone players before the final year of their rookie contracts.
Earlier this month, Harrison Smith became the latest to cash in when he signed a five-year, $51.25 million deal, making him the league’s highest-paid safety, at least until Eric Berry signs. Rhodes wouldn’t speculate on where he thinks he might rank on that list for cornerbacks a year from now.
“That’s not my mind-set,” he said. “I have the same mind-set no matter what. I love the game. What motivates me is playing for my teammates and winning. I don’t worry about contracts. If I go out and make plays, that contract will take care of itself.”