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Does Xavier Rhodes Change the Defense?

The Vikings drafted a top-tier cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, and managed to do so at pick 25. He provides a set of skills that the Vikings may not have traditionally wanted, so does the defense change?


The Vikings were able to find Xavier Rhodes at pick 25, an unexpected luxury that was particularly welcome in light of Desmond Trufant's pick earlier in the day. CBS sports had Rhodes as the second-best cornerback, and the 17th best player overall, while Draft Countdown figured that Rhodes was the 23rd best player, although they agreed with the assessment that he was the second-best corner. Scouts, Inc was impressed by D.J. Hayden, but still ranked Rhodes as the second-best corner and the 20th best player.

It seems pretty clear that the Vikings scored some value with Rhodes, but they also got a player that may not fit all the of the traditional requirements of a Tampa-2 defense. Before defining the parameters of the defense, I'll go over Rhodes strengths and weaknesses.

More than anything, Rhodes is known as a heavy hitter who knows how to tackle. More than simply knowing that he must wrap up, Rhodes has an intuitive understanding of how to break down tackles in open space and drive through ballcarriers to complete the tackle. While he approaches nearly every hit with relish, he keeps his head up and sinks his hips at the point of contact.

This love of physicality comes across as a press corner, as well. He can really punch into receivers to prevent their release, and is very quick in doing so. He flashes fast hands at the snap and disrupts the timing and rhythm of even the strongest receivers. While he can expand his technique here, he knows how to create effectively stifling jams that throw off offenses.

In fact, Rhodes played in press coverage more than any other top cornerback prospect, and by a significant degree. Rhodes played in press-man coverage nearly 21% of the time, while the highest percentage of press coverage was 13% (Milliner). Overall, Rhodes has lined up in press-man coverage 21% of the time, press-bail coverage 25% of the time, near coverage 23% of the time and off coverage 28% of the time. This makes him the most experienced corner in the draft at playing in different schemes and looks, and Rhodes has even taken safety snaps, to boot.

Rhodes' ability to burst to the ball and suss out the ball carrier is an enormous asset of his, and could speak to an ability to improve as a zone player, as this is a critical part of zone coverage. Called the ability to click-and-close, his reaction to receivers about to receiver passes is among the best in the class, making sure to keep gains restricted with solid tackling. In fact, of all of the top receivers, Rhodes allowed the fewest yards per completion at 5.7. The next lowest was Trufant at 6.92. Don't make too much of this, as this is heavily dictated by the passing ability of his opponents.

But having played Clemson (and lined up against Sammy Watkins), NC State, Miami , Florida, NIU and Virginia Tech (across from both Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller), it's safe to say that Rhodes lined up against serious talent.

Rhodes also is aware of down-and-distance markers and plays not just to his landmarks, but with the ability to prevent receivers from converting, making sure that an astonishing 80% of catches he's allowed fall short of a first down, second-most of all corners (Jordan Poyer was first at 83.33%). Below him is a gulf; Darius Slay, in third, ensured that 56% of his allowed catches converted.

The Florida State product generally has an ability to redirect receivers without losing leverage, knows how to use the sideline and can close passing windows with his length, with a good understanding of the geometry of the game. His intuition when the ball is in the air is great, and he deflect passes most corners would have given up as caught, sometimes even punching the ball out of the hands of a receiver in the air. This intuition has served him well and he deflects a good number of passes if he doesn't make the passing window difficult, allowing the second lowest catch rate in the group of cornerbacks as well (when discounting slot plays) at 47.7%. He had the lowest completions per snaps in coverage as well, at 6.9%. He times his leap well and can attack the ball with good hands.

His tight coverage also scares quarterbacks off; with only 14.5% of his coverage snaps ending in a target to his assigned receiver—the lowest of any cornerback outside of the slot. His pass interference penalties are significant though, and could give teams good reason to doubt his ability to be reliable defending the deep ball.

Rhodes' ability to mirror receivers in man coverage, keep up with functional speed on the field, and play with a variety of man-coverage techniques makes him one of the best corners in the draft. Add in the fact that he plays with awareness of the field, and an intuitive understanding of what his defense is trying to accomplish (and how to make up for it when they make a mistake) and he could be a steal at 23.

The problem is that Rhodes is not really a fit for zone coverage. It's not that he doesn't have experience in zone coverage—Florida State was one of the most versatile defenses in the league—it's that he doesn't do a good job sticking to his assignment or anticipating the correct throw or route. When he gets turned around in a zone, it takes a long time for him to recover. In fact, Rhodes has such an unnatural feel for zone defense that he will occasionally abandon his zone to cover his man in pursuit. This creates enormous holes in the defense and could break the entire thing down.

Even in man coverage, he has limitations, where he allows separation downfield, and relies on closing ability to make up for his mistakes. He will also get suckered in on play action or other types of chicanery, although he can recognize and react to tricky plays. This brings him out of position, and without recovery speed he's a little lost.

In run support, the Vikings will be getting a good player. Not only does Rhodes read and react to running plays extremely well, he's an expert at shedding blocks from receivers and even tight ends. He keeps his distance with long arms and has a few moves to get by blockers. He takes smart angles and can anticipate speed well, too. Rhodes seems to play with Winfield's recklessness with how much he likes to hit. With a 210 pound frame, that shouldn't be an extraordinary problem.

What does this mean for the Vikings' defensive scheme?

Well, the Vikings do run a base Tampa-2 scheme, but have been far more creative with it under Alan Williams than under Fred Pagac. Typically, corners will be asked to redirect receivers and funnel them inside, close to the ball to prevent big gains, disallow deep balls at the expense of allowing short catches for minimal gain, flow to the ball once it's in the air, patrol the alleys to prevent runs and to effectively contain plays in zone coverage, with a good understanding of down and distance markers.

Rhodes may have been a better fit than I gave him credit for, as he fulfills most of the criteria.

But it's not a checklist—playing in zone coverage with competence is more important than the rest of those requirements combined. Rhodes will need to work on his footwork, prevent himself from opening the gate too early and improve his ability to read the quarterback if he wants to thrive in a pure Tampa-2.

Most importantly, Rhodes will have to improve his focus on discipline. It's not simply that he needs to be more consistent about reacting to play-action passes, but he needs to know his assignment and constantly be executing it correctly. Some of what holds Rhodes back can be fixed—discipline, recognition, focus, etc—while others are permanent drawbacks—tight hips—that need to be hidden or accounted for. His permanent drawbacks aren't fatal and working to improve his game in other areas should hide the issue.

From the Vikings' side, they'll do more to enable Rhodes to shut players down. They've done the same for Cook, where they've given him assignments he's clearly comfortable with against the best wide receivers, playing his best game against Calvin Johnson when he had man coverage responsibilities while the rest of the back seven were in zone. The Vikings have constantly been looking to mix up their looks and playing more man coverage suits them well when they can play with a Cover-2 or even Cover-3 shell (with either the MLB dropping deep or both CBs and one safety patrolling the deep zones).

Rhodes isn't schooled enough yet to play the more complex hybrid coverages, like the matchup zones the Vikings have on very rare occasion used successfully, but he can develop into the smart type of player they need to mix things up.

The Vikings will still likely play their primary coverage scheme as a zone system despite Rhodes' pickup, but they'll be looking for Rhodes to improve while they themselves adapt their scheme to fit their talent. It could be a bumpy ride for some time, but if Rhodes reaches half of his potential, he'll be part of one of the league's hardest-hitting and punishing secondaries.