As the Minnesota Vikings prepare to face off with the New Orleans Saints, we will focus on one key matchup each day. For Part 1, we look at Xavier Rhodes vs. Michael Thomas…
In 2016, Xavier Rhodes established himself as one of the best corners in the NFL. He proved not only that he could slow down the best of the best, but he could shadow them when called upon. In 2017, Rhodes was asked to back up his breakout year against many of the league’s elite receivers. He shadowed – and shut down – video game-cover types Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Julio Jones and AJ Green.
His Week 1 matchup with Michael Thomas didn’t get nearly the hype of the others, in part because Thomas was only entering his second year and Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota took the spotlight.
But after a terrific season for both players, Rhodes vs. Thomas will take center stage.
Michael Thomas has had one of the best starts to a career for any receiver ever. He’s caught 196 passes on 270 targets and 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons. When Brees threw in Thomas’s direction, he completed 69.8 percent of his passes at 8.3 yards per attempt. If you think Brees’s talent is the only reason for Thomas’s success, you’d be wrong. He ranked fifth by Pro Football Focus ratings last season and second in the NFL this year.
Cornerbacks used to be graded by interceptions, but now we have metrics that take us even farther in depth. Rhodes only grabbed two INTs this year (one was to seal a victory in Detroit), but his other metrics were strong. He allowed 6.4 yards per attempt into his coverage and led the Vikings to the ninth best yards allowed per game mark vs. No. 1 wide receivers this year at just 47.8 per contest. Pro Football Focus ranked Rhodes as the 28th best corner – an excellent mark considering the level of competition and his shadow assignment.
Thomas does not have the pure speed of other top receivers (4.57 40-yard dash), but he has everything else. At 6-foot-3, Thomas’s size allows him to make catches even when there is a cornerback tight in coverage. The former Ohio State receiver is impressively strong. He was among the tops in his draft class at the bench press. Rhodes explained Monday that Thomas is also on the same page with Brees:
“You can tell he and Drew have chemistry going,” Rhodes said. “He knows [where] the ball is going to be located when it comes out of Drew’s hands and he adjusts to the ball really well, he runs great routes, he’s pretty physical too so I’m looking forward to it being a battle.”
Rhodes has a great skill set to match up with big receivers. He’s tall (6-foot-1), speedy (4.43 40) and was a top jumper in his draft class, so he can make up the difference even when receivers gain separation for a moment. The Vikings’ corner is also well-studied. He knows every receiver’s tendencies, route combinations and mental makeup.
Thomas and Rhodes have faced off just once in Week 1. The star receiver finished the game with five catches for 45 yards in a 29-19 win for the Vikings.
Drew Brees can make any throw at any time with pinpoint accuracy, which means that Rhodes might be perfect in coverage and Thomas can still end up with a catch.
Rhodes has a great ability to bounce back after he’s allowed a catch. Against the Lions, he gave up a long touchdown pass to Marvin Jones, then picked off a pass on the final drive.
The Vikings’ pass rush will also be an X-Factor. If Brees doesn’t have time in the pocket to let Thomas’s routes develop, Rhodes will have a huge advantage.