If the Minnesota Vikings hope to reclaim the NFC North crown this season, they need another strong defensive effort. The X-factor may just be cornerback Trae Waynes.
In 2015, the Minnesota Vikings needed a cornerback to complement the budding-star Xavier Rhodes. After a 2014 season that saw Josh Robinson mightily struggle as the Vikings’ third corner, coach Mike Zimmer knew that he’d have to shore up the cornerback position and he responded.
With the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, the Vikings selected the top corner prospect in the draft, Trae Waynes. The pick was viewed as a great selection for a team in need of help on the backend. Waynes was a standout at the NFL Scouting Combine. Waynes ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash, the fastest time among corners at that Combine. He also showed the ability to be a strong bump-and-run corner. It seemed he would make the perfect fit across from another bump-and-run corner in Rhodes.
But, that wasn’t the case in Waynes’ first season with the Vikings. The Vikings signed 37-year old corner Terence Newman, who was a Zimmer-favorite in his years as defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. When Waynes showed he wasn’t ready to play a significant role in the NFL during training camp and the preseason, Zimmer entrusted Newman with a starting spot. To this point, he’s far exceeded expectations for the Vikings given his age.
Getting back to Waynes, the slow start to his career was something scouts thought may happen. In college, he had the tendency to be a hands-on player, something that many young corners struggle getting away from as they transition to the NFL. Essentially, Waynes needed to learn to trust his speed and ball skills. In an NFL game where officials call penalties on anyone who gets handsy on receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage, Waynes had no choice but to learn to play a different way.
In yesterday’s Zimmer press conference, the coach also took some of the blame for early struggles in his development, stating:
"“When he came in he had a lot to learn, and I think I probably messed him up a little bit trying to play him at nickel,” Zimmer said. “I was giving him a little bit more to do with some of that.”"
So, in year two, Zimmer played Waynes strictly on the outside and he started to flourish. Starting nine games, Waynes showed his ball skills by finishing the year with three interceptions. One of those interceptions came in the second game of the year against the Green Bay Packers. The interception effectively ended the Packers’ chances of a comeback late in the game. He also added respectable season totals of 40 tackles and 11 passes defended.
Waynes still struggled with keeping his hands in check, getting called for seven penalties last season. Yet, the former first rounder still showed noticeable improvement compared to his rookie season. He showed that he was transitioning to the NFL game.
Now, Newman still started nine games himself and ranked out as a top corner in the NFL all year long, receiving the top rating of any Vikings player by Pro Football Focus. But, Waynes showed the promise that made him a first round pick in 2015 and will be expected to continue his growth in 2017.
And with Captain Munnerlyn heading back to the Carolina Panthers, Waynes’ opportunity just got bigger to show that he is ready to take the next step in his third season. Basically, this is his big shot to take over the full-time starting spot opposite of Rhodes, something expected from him since he was drafted. Yes, Newman is still aboard and playing at a high level, but with the need for a nickel corner, the Vikings would be better off letting the veteran take over that all important starting position.
This makes Waynes’ role huge heading into 2017. If he cements his status as full-time starter and plays well, the Vikings defense is significantly better. Many teams tend to put one of their top two receivers in the slot, so having Newman as the nickel corner is a far better feeling than having second-year corner Mackensie Alexander take over.
I think Alexander has the ability to play a significant role on this team for years to come, but he struggled with much of the same things that Waynes did in his rookie season. An increase in reps should be given to the young Alexander this season. Still, I’d be shocked to see him start over Newman in the nickel defense.
At this point, Waynes has shown he’s ready to take the next step. Newman has proven that he still belongs on the field until proven otherwise. This equates to a strong top-three at corner when you add in Rhodes, who will likely trail the opposition’s top receiver again this season.
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That being said, what Waynes does with the opportunity is up to him. If he struggles, the Vikings may be forced to start Newman on the outside and Alexander at the nickel spot. An option that feels unlikely given what Waynes showed last season, but still a possibility. If he succeeds, this team has a strong backend and doesn’t have to force Alexander into an important position. A scenario where Waynes and Alexander both perform poorly is the ultimate nightmare scenario. That scenario would be one that wouldn’t sit well with a Vikings fanbase that saw Munnerlyn walk in free agency.
Since I see the glass half-full with Waynes, I’m excited to see how this season’s top-three corners shutdown receivers. Given how the Vikings’ defense looked for most of last season, there’s no reason to think they can’t be equally or more successful. When it’s all set and done, Waynes may be the biggest X-factor to how successful the Vikings defense really is.
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