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Updated: December 4th, 2013 3:54pm
Rookie Xavier Rhodes 'hitting his stride' as the Vikings' starter

Rookie Xavier Rhodes 'hitting his stride' as the Vikings' starter

by Andrew Krammer
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes is tied for the most penalized player on the team, according to one site tracking such numbers.

But the rookie's physicality has meticulously translated into results as he's tallied six of his career eight pass deflections in his last two starts - all without drawing a yellow flag.

"[Rhodes] is starting to make more plays now," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's playing with more confidence. [I'm] seeing some things you'd like to see long-term. He had a lot of struggles as you would expect with a lot of rookie players, but it seems like he's beginning to hit his stride now."

As rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson scores touchdowns -- a fellow first-round draft pick is quietly excelling on the opposite side of the ball. 

Rhodes, 23, has slowly become the Vikings' most productive and reliable cornerback as the eldest position player, Chris Cook, has missed a handful of games from injury and, in Sunday's case, ejection.

Second-year cornerback Josh Robinson has been out since Nov. 17, which opened the door for Rhodes to start the previous two games. He played all but one snap in Sunday's win.

"As of right now, I'm just going to let it come to me, not force it," Rhodes said. "Getting more reps, you get more of a feeling for the game and more feeling for the routes and receivers."

Four of the Vikings' six pass interference calls on the season have flown Rhodes' way, but he hasn't been flagged since their Week 10 win over the Washington Redskins. Growing pains were noticeable in the early goings, evident when he played the wrong coverage against Carolina Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell, who took a third-quarter bomb 79 yards for the touchdown in the Oct. 13 loss.

But, he's allowed only two touchdowns in a Vikings' secondary that has allowed a NFL-leading 26 scores through the air. And that's one reason Frazier believes one of the Vikings' three first-round draft picks is turning the corner.

"I think [Rhodes' improvement] coincides with our defense playing a little bit better as well," Frazier said. "That corner position and nickel position are critical in our game and it'll show up this week with the team we're playing. I think [Rhodes] is beginning to come around."

On Sunday, Rhodes allowed seven catches on 12 passes thrown his way as he faced one of the tougher receiving duos in the league against the Bears' Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Rhodes allowed 98 yards, but didn't give up multiple touchdowns like his cohort Cook.

"Them guys used their strong suit and that's their physicality, they used it against us and used it against me," Rhodes said. "I'm just continuing to get better, looking at my flaws."

"I can't stand here and tell you what the next step is, because each game it's something new."

Rhodes deflected two passes - one in man coverage on Marshall in the endzone and another on a poorly thrown ball to Marshall on 1st-and-15 in overtime.

"The next step is, some of those balls he's knocking down, they can turn into interceptions," Frazier said. "When I was watching one of those balls he got his hands on on Sunday, I was saying, 'man, a year from now, that's going to be an interception.' He'll have the confidence to not go up with one hand, but two and catch the ball. This is where he is in his development, so hopefully he'll keep growing."

However, Rhodes isn't guaranteed to remain the starter. Frazier said a week ago he'd put Robinson back into the starting lineup when healthy. 

Andrew Krammer covers the Minnesota Vikings for 1500ESPN.com. He previously covered the Gophers men's basketball team for the Minnesota Daily.
Email Andrew | @andrew_krammer
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