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Updated: August 5th, 2014 4:22pm
Zulgad: Rhodes getting extra attention; positive reviews for Bridgewater

Zulgad: Rhodes getting extra attention; positive reviews for Bridgewater

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

With the Vikings three days away from their preseason opener, here are three observations from time spent in Mankato the past couple of weeks.

Student of the game

Mike Zimmer has had plenty to focus on during his first training camp as a coach, but one area he is paying special attention to is the defensive backfield and, in particular, second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

This is no accident.

Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is being counted on to become an elite cornerback. However, he still has plenty to learn about playing one of the most difficult positions in the NFL and he also is in the process of picking up a new scheme.

Zimmer was a secondary coach before he became a defensive coordinator in the NFL and, thus, has a lot to offer Rhodes when it comes to the teaching process. It doesn't hurt that Rhodes also is working with defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who was defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titants from 2011 to 2013, and veteran corner Captain Munnerlyn.

Munnerlyn, who joined the Vikings as a free agent during the offseason, spoke last week about taking Rhodes under his wing.

The fact Rhodes has several good mentors doesn't mean he is going to pick up everything all at once. That's why there have been times in camp when Rhodes has been successful on one part of a play but Zimmer or Gray aren't satisfied with the end result.

One example came in Saturday night's practice when Rhodes made a nice diving interception of a Matt Cassel pass that was intended for Jarius Wright.

"It was a great interception," Zimmer said Monday before adding, "(but) it was poor, poor position on the receiver. ... We have to get him to be in the right position and then make the play easy and then he does not have to make great plays."

With the Vikings facing high-quality quarterbacks, not to mention top-notch receivers, in the NFC North, Zimmer knows it is imperative that Rhodes takes a big step forward this season.

Our expectations vs. their expectations

It's important to remember that what fans and media make judgments on during practices aren't necessarily the same things the coaching staff are making judgments on.

A key example is the quarterback position.

While many of us want to make a quick decision on Teddy Bridgewater's development, or some days the lack thereof, this is a process for offensive coordinator Norv Turner and Zimmer. It's why the two are in no hurry to rush their prized first-round pick.

Bridgewater has not looked great of late - he threw four interceptions over a span of three practices - but, as Turner explained Tuesday, he isn't looking at this like most of us. And that's a good thing.

"I just have a different perspective than all of you and it's not right or wrong, it's because I look at it differently," he said. "We are doing a lot of things. There are things we're doing with Teddy that we would never call in a game. We're trying to find out where he's at in terms of what he can do. I think he's playing at an awfully high level."

This training camp, and this season, is all about putting Bridgewater in first-time situations and seeing how he does. Many of these situations will occur in practices, away from the spotlight of the national television cameras.

This is why there is no need to rush Bridgewater and why the more you observe how he's being used in camp the more you realize there is no intention to start him on opening day.

Matt Cassel has been around the block and while he's also learning a new system, the veteran has seen much more than Bridgewater and is in a better position to deal with any failures that takes place. Turner also is more likely to open up his playbook for Cassel because of his experience.

This is no knock against Bridgewater. It's just the realization that he can get valuable experience behind the scenes in 2014.

Who wants the job?

Zimmer has to be wondering why it is so difficult to find someone to take hold of the wide open strong safety position.

The first depth chart released Tuesday has Robert Blanton as the starter, followed by Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Chris Crocker and Antone Exum.

There's only one problem with Blanton being at the top of that list. A strained hamstring suffered last week has left him as a spectator during practice. As for Sanford and Raymond, they could end up as special teams' contributors, but likely lack the coverage skills that Zimmer wants from this position. (Andrew Sendejo, who was recently activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list, is listed as the third-string free safety.)

That's why the 34-year-old Crocker was brought back by his old pal Zimmer on Monday. Zimmer talked Crocker into playing the past two seasons as well when the former was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

Don't let Crocker's current spot on the depth chart fool you. He might be listed fourth but it won't be surprising if he starts in the regular-season opener on Sept. 7 in St. Louis.

Crocker knows Zimmer's defensive scheme inside and out, meaning the veteran can serve as an on-the-field coach and a potential tutor to the other strong safeties trying to pick up the system. Long term, the answer could be Blanton, provided he can stay on the field.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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