If anyone understands the importance of being a sponge as a young cornerback, it’s Xavier Rhodes.
Over the past five seasons, Rhodes has risen from a raw, late-first-round pick to an elite shutdown corner.
One of the reasons he took leaps forward each year was his willingness to buy into the teachings of Mike Zimmer, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and his veteran teammate Terence Newman.
Last December, Rhodes talked about Newman’s impact.
“Being able to tell what people are trying to do to me, how they’re trying to get in my head, stuff like that,” Rhodes said. “What to see, what not to see, what to do what not to do, what’s there for me, what my weakness is, how people are trying to target me on certain routes. It’s like he’s a coach on the field, you’re grateful to have a guy like that, to have the knowledge he has.”
With the Vikings drafting a corner in the first round, Rhodes, who turns 28 later this month, will have an opportunity to follow Newman’s footsteps by teaching younger players.
On Tuesday, Rhodes said 30th overall pick Mike Hughes has been a good student so far.
“He’s willing to learn, he’s willing to learn,” Rhodes said. “Some rookies have a hard time taking advice from some other players. He’s willing to learn. You can tell he’s just open to anything you tell him.”
Prior to the 2017 season, Rhodes’ mentor Terrell Buckley, a former Pro Bowler and Rhodes’ position coach in college, told 1500ESPN that playing a mentor role can help good players raise their game to the next level.
“When you start explaining why you play a certain way, you start becoming even a better player because now, when you start explaining to somebody, you say, ‘Let me add this to it, that makes sense,'” Buckley said. “It’s one of those weird things, you actually become better and [understand] more in-depth when you’re talking about it.”
Cornerback is among the most difficult positions to transition from college to the NFL. That’s part of the reason we have seen Rhodes, first-rounder Trae Waynes and second-rounder Mackensie Alexander be brought along slowly over their first few years. Rhodes was asked about the toughest part of learning the NFL game as a rookie.
“Playing within the rules for me,” Rhodes said. “When I was at Florida State, I was a real aggressive corner. I used to jam them down the field rather than within the five yards. When you come to the NFL, you have to jam within five yards and let the receiver run his route. You have to work with your technique and your footwork. In college, you can just have your hands on the receiver all the way down the field.”
Mike Zimmer said that Hughes has been working at nickel corner and on the outside, making his challenge even tougher.
Defensive coordinator George Edwards said Rhodes’ attitude toward working with younger players permeates throughout the entire defense.
“They’re a very unselfish group,” Edwards said. “Really, I think the unit as a whole, when you talk about the defensive line, the linebackers, and our secondary we do have some guys that are experienced. They’re grabbing these young guys and trying to help them through this process, accept the information as quickly as possible.”