Mike Zimmer has never been one to mince words: not when criticizing others, not when fielding blame, not when defending his players. His curt manner of speaking has provided valuable insight with regards to many of the Vikings’ moves, most recently in his strong praise for Anthony Barr following the linebacker’s lucrative re-signing. But this week, Zimmer’s bluntness stirred up a bit of buzz around his star cornerback Xavier Rhodes. In evaluating Rhodes’ down 2018, Zimmer was characteristically forthwith in his description.
“He’s kind of gotten away from his technique a little bit and we’re going to get back to it,” Zimmer said to Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune. “I just don’t think he played as well as he can play. He needs to play up to his ability level. We’re paying him a lot of money. He needs to play up to that contract.”
His criticism echoed sentiments shared by many a Vikings’ observer. Rhodes in two prior seasons established himself as one of the league’s preeminent shutdown corners. 2017 in particular saw Rhodes square off with some of the best of the best at the receiver position. Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, A.J. Green and Julio Jones all struggled to find space against Rhodes.
Yet, that Xavier Rhodes did not appear as often in 2018. In fact, one can hearken back to the 2017 postseason when Rhodes’ lockdown reputation took its first hit since his early years in the league. He surrendered a touchdown and over 80 yards to Michael Thomas in the Division Round, and then played a role in allowing the Eagles’ passing shellacking in the Championship Game the next week.
Then, come 2018, Rhodes posted some of the weakest performances of his career. His 65.2 catch-allowed percentage was his worst ever, a 88.4 targeted passer rating his second-worst and he combined for just six pass breakups and interceptions, again his worst (numbers from Pro Football Focus). And while there were not games in which Rhodes was burned time and again, his ability to hold an island, a staple of the Vikings’ defense, was not in the same rarefied air this season.
For some silver lining, there is the distinct possibility that Rhodes’ under-performance was in part due to injury difficulties. He dealt with ankle troubles midway through the season, missing one game. Then, a groin injury kept him out of the season finale. Plus, even with apparent dips in coverage, Rhodes graded well in coverage when taking opponent into account. According to STATS, when evaluating expected performance against opponents versus actual performance, Rhodes consistently rated among the better corners in the league.
But Rhodes’ past play transcended opponent. Julio Jones and A.J. Green combined for four catches and 54 yards in 2017. He was not the same level of game-changer in 2018, and given the about $13.3 million cap hit he will account for next season, Zimmer’s criticism is understandable.
The free agency rumor mill included talks of the Vikings answering calls for Rhodes and his counterpart Trae Waynes. While nothing has come of such talk, the Vikings’ tight cap situation leaves the door open heading towards the draft. Trading Waynes would clear more space than Rhodes would. Plus, Waynes is two years younger, so he seems the better target for trade. Still, even considering a Rhodes trade seemed inconceivable a year ago.
Given Zimmer’s comments, it is clear how much value he puts in Rhodes. He did not give Rhodes an ultimatum, and he stated explicitly that they are going to work with him to shore up his technique. As such, it would seem Rhodes will continue with Minnesota for the foreseeable future. But for the first time, his future in purple is a touch murky.
Rhodes will be 29 in week one, theoretically the meat of a player’s prime. Plus, the majority of his time as a starter has seen him among the elite of the elite at cornerback. The hope is that 2018 was a mere hiccup and not a sign of things to come. The Vikings’ defense obviously needs Rhodes at the top of his game. 2018 showed what can happen if he falls short.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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