Xavier Rhodes hasn’t been talkative during Minnesota Vikings training camp this year.
He’s dying to avoid being asked generic questions because he’s bad at answering them. What does he think about Super Bowl expectations? Rhodes doesn’t have a well-stocked cliche bin to draw from like some players, so can’t quickly find right the words. And he doesn’t care about that at all right now. But ask him about the intricacies of playing cornerback and he’ll sit outside TCO Performance Center in 90-degree heat talking so long that he is asked to head back inside for meetings.
Over the past two years, Rhodes has made back-to-back Pro Bowls and despite facing off with a murderer’s row of receivers last year, the Vikings’ 2013 first-round pick allowed just a 73.2 quarterback rating on throws in his direction, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s like turning every quarterback into Mark Sanchez.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will remember 2017 as the year Rhodes really made it — when the former defensive backs coach who followed Rhodes around every day of 2014 training camp could have complete confidence sending him out on an island with any receiver in the NFL.
Zimmer put him up against Antonio Brown. The Steelers’ star caught four passes on eight targets for 54 yards. Rhodes took on Julio Jones. Four catches, 52 yards. AJ Green. Four catches, 45 yards. He gave up 100-plus yards one time in 2017 — a remarkable feat in the golden era of passing. Sufficed to say, the Vikings do not regret giving Rhodes a five-year, $70.1 million contract extension last offseason.
Rhodes’ dominance all starts with his commitment to mastering the most difficult assignment in football: press coverage.
“Everybody talks about [Darrelle] Revis, but I think Xavier has the ability to supersede what he’s done,” veteran cornerback Terence Newman said.
When Rhodes came out in the 2013 draft, he weighed in at 210-pounds. That ranked in the 95th percentile among NFL corners. Despite his size, he scored in the 90th percentile or above in the 10-yard split, broad jump and vertical jump. He’s also 6-foot-1 and has arms that are in the 97th percentile in length.
“What’s unbelievable about him is that he’s big and he has the most ridiculous lateral movement for a guy his size, I have not seen that before,” Newman said.
No doubt the Vikings’ shutdown corner is a specimen, but that’s far from the only reason he’s made it this far. The website Mockdraftable, which compares players’ Combine results to their peers, lists former Viking Chris Cook as one of the most similar players to Rhodes athletically. The takeaway for anyone who has used Mockdraftable is this: athleticism is only a small part of an NFL player’s success.
Rhodes’ rise to elite status is the culmination of years of growth, from the moment his mentor Terrell Buckley convinced Jimbo Fisher to move him from wide receiver to corner at Florida State to shutting down Brown, Jones, AJ Green and on and on.
For Rhodes, his obsession with studying the details has pushed him into the upper echelon of the NFL.
Sitting back on a concrete slab with his feet resting on his pads, Rhodes plays a little word association game to demonstrate the details of being the league’s best press corner.
“Hips,” he says, explaining that every play starts with his eyes focused on the receivers hips. After all, the man must go where his hips go. It’s science.
“Inside,” Rhodes responds. “Gotta be quick because you don’t want him to knock your hands down before you even shoot ’em, once you do that, you lose leverage. If you lose leverage, he gets on top of you and stacks you and you lost the route. Once that happens, it’s over. Now it’s a guessing game for the corner.”
With every element of Rhodes’ ability to shut down the best wide receivers on earth, there’s a backstory. In order to improve his hands at the line of scrimmage, the 28-year-old took up boxing before last season.
Rhodes loves how it helped him dial into his target.
“Focus,” he says. “When you are punching the bag or punching the mitt, you have to focus where you’re punching it, you can’t punch and not focus on it or you’ll completely miss.”
His boxing trainer shouts out numbers for a jab or upper cut and Rhodes has to listen for the number and instantly connect with his target with the proper technique.
“Boxing is like a quick jab and get out,” defensive back’s coach Jerry Gray said. “We’re trying to stay in position, stay over the top because we don’t want to get beat deep. I think boxing helps a lot. It helps you with quick hand placement, stuff like that…I encourage all these guys.”
“Terrell Buckley always preached to me that I have to use my length,” Rhodes says. “There aren’t many corners who are as long as me and they can run as fast as me. So he’d say that I can use my arms to knock the timing off the receiver, to make the wide receiver go wider than he expects to go. That’s always been my approach.”
“In the NFL past five yards, you can’t have your hands on a receiver, so I had to work on my feet first, then hands,” Rhodes says. “In college, it was hands, then feet. I had to reverse that. Once I did that, sky is the limit. Everything started changing for me. I started paying attention to the little details, down-and-distances, cut splits, different formations that will determine the route and that will determine where I lineup in press coverage, inside or outside.”
Here’s the tricky part of the NFL: Rhodes has spent years mastering the technique of press coverage and then worked to fully understand the game around him, which resulted in an outstanding 2016 season. That, in turn, caused everyone around the league to start finding ways to beat him. Cut splits, for example, are simply teams using tighter formations with receivers stacked closely together, making press coverage more challenging. Often corners are forced to switch to a different coverage rather than press because receivers have more room to break off the line.
But in this never-ending cat-and-mouse game, he always seems to be Jerry and the receivers are Tom. He attributes that to an appreciation for the value of evolution.
“Football is all about learning,” Rhodes says. “Learning from your mistakes, learning from what your opponent does to you. It’s a copycat league, so if something works for one team, of course your next opponent is going to do it unless you correct it…I always told myself, once that happened, I have to come back the next day on that off day and look at the film because I guarantee the next team is going to do the same exact thing.”
Football is a lot more like school than you’d think. The Vikings only play on 16-20 dates per year, so on the other 349 days or so, you prepare. Rhodes thinks of it like tests that need passing in order to graduate to star status, win games, earn a contract et al.
“One thing I can say coach Gray says, and it’s perfect, the NFL is an open-book test,” Rhodes said. “They give you film. They give you everything you need for the test on Sunday. The only thing you have to do is open it.”
He can’t explain exactly why he gets so much joy out of studying, but if Rhodes were a middle schooler, he’d be the kid naming every president off the top of his head.
“It makes you understand the other team and what they like to do, so you don’t have to go out there and guess,” Rhodes says. “If you are taking a test and you don’t study, nine times out of 10 you’re going to fail. You study for the test and you know what’s coming to you, you’re going to pass. That’s why us DBs going into the game, that’s why we have tests every Friday. Coach is like, have you all studied? What do they like to do in this formation? Or that formation? Or when this guy shifts?”
Part of the fun of studying for the test for Rhodes is zeroing in on the wide receiver he’s going to match up against.
The first lockdown gig he was ever given by Zimmer just happened to come against Calvin Johnson — only one of the most dominating and intimidating physical receivers in the history of the NFL.
“He used to run all types of curls, slants, drag routes, post routes just to block you out to the point that when the ball is in the air, you can’t get to it,” Rhodes said. “It’s hard to get over a person who’s 6-foot-5, 230-pounds with broad shoulders without getting a flag.”
Johnson provided a blueprint for how some of the top big receivers would attack him.
“The guy who is 6-foot-4 really wants to run through you,” Rhodes says. “Michael Thomas isn’t 6-4, but he plays like he is 6-4. Julio Jones, those guys they use their size and their strength like me. I try to use my size and strength too.”
Where Rhodes’ education comes into play most is against the smaller receivers. It’s simple: If you don’t study for their tests, you will get an F in front of 60,000 people.
“Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, T.Y. Hilton, those guys that can really get in and out of breaks, those guys you have to have perfect footwork. Perfect. Phenomenal footwork,” Rhodes says. “If you were to mess up once, they will run past you. You really have to look at their releases, if he’s lined up in a certain position with a foot up or a release inside, which routes they run inside. With those guys you have to look into every detail of the game.”
Gray says one thing that has helped Rhodes become adept at battling some of the best receivers in the NFL is that he goes against two of them in practice on a daily basis in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. He and Diggs took their daily level of competition at camp so far one day that Mike Zimmer kicked them both out of practice.
“He’s got big time speed and great quickness,” Zimmer said of Diggs. “He’s got big time acceleration. He catches the ball well, but the way he runs his routes he’s able to get the defender on his back hip because he can beat him at the line and get into that spot.”
What Rhodes has come to understand about slowing down the most gifted receivers, Gray says, is that he can’t be too aggressive or over-anxious or the great ones will flip the script on him.
“The best thing I’ve seen him grow is with his patience,” he says. “In order to be a great press corner you’ve gotta have patience because receivers are going to try to do a lot of stuff, you gotta have patience to wait on them sometimes. And we put him on top guys and every guy is different, so you have to have enough patience and discipline to know the guy you are covering, what’s his best move and how do you cover it.”
The value of holding a group of elite receivers to 46 catches on 84 targets for 553 yards (per PFF) as Rhodes did last year is massive for a defense. But safety Anthony Harris points out there’s more to the impact of a true shutdown corner than just stopping the best wideout.
“It helps the safeties because we can play a little shallow sometimes or we can be a little more patient getting out of there because we know he’s slowing that receiver from getting up on us pretty fast,” safety Anthony Harris says. “It also helps the pass rush as well, they go hand-in-hand. Him being able to throw the timing off for quarterbacks. They might not want to go his way if it’s a timing route and the timing’s not quite there or if he’s able to delay the amount of time a receiver can get open, it can allow the pressure to get there.”
It’s hard to quantify it, but huge sack totals from players like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter over the last two years are likely connected to Rhodes’ ability to throw off the timing of opposing receivers and quarterbacks.
“Sometimes they have to release outside, sometimes they might be releasing inside for a particular route, so his ability to get up and press, it really forces the receivers to make a decision early,” Harris said. “I think that’s critical because with a guy that’s physical, if you’re supposed to be inside but you fight to go outside, it’s going to be tough to get back inside. It kind of tips their hand a little bit and gives us an idea of the route concepts we might be about to get.”
The list of wide receivers that Rhodes will have to face this year isn’t quite as daunting as in 2017, but it will still include Marvin Jones, Davante Adams, Doug Baldwin and Allen Robinson. It’s also likely to include a whole lot of new ideas as teams desperately try to get their No. 1 receivers involved against the Vikings’ defense.
“A lot people last year tried to go into cut splits so he couldn’t press and now you have to play off technique,” Gray said. “He worked on that all offseason. He’s actually adding to his techniques to be a better corner.”
That should come as no surprise. Rhodes doesn’t want to fail any tests this year, either.