Why Rhodes is on the list
The first snap of Xavier Rhodes' NFL career ended with the cornerback on the ground, looking up at Calvin Johnson. The Vikings drafted Rhodes with the No. 25 overall pick in the 2013 draft largely because of his physical cover skills. But when he tried to put his hands on Megatron, Rhodes was swatted away like a fly. Rhodes dusted himself off, got up and wound up with a solid first game.
Getting his Welcome to the NFL Moment out of the way early was a blessing in disguise for Rhodes. It was more like a Welcome to the NFL season. Rhodes started the year as Minnesota's third cornerback. He ended as the best player in a disastrous secondary, routinely lining up against guys like Johnson, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson. Rhodes won plenty and lost plenty. He survived.
The film wasn't all pretty when we turned on the Game Rewind to dissect Rhodes' season, but there was an undeniable arc. Rhodes played his best late in the year. He was all over the field in Green Bay in Week 12, breaking up four passes. He did a commendable job against Chicago the following week slowing down Brandon Marshall. Rhodes forced a fumble the next week against Baltimore, and kept up with Torrey Smith on deep routes before suffering a high ankle sprain that ended his season.
Rhodes is at his best on the boundary. He forces receivers to the sideline well and finds the ball in flight. He's the type of cornerback that every coach is looking for in the red zone.
He played like a slightly above average starter overall, which is no simple task for a rookie on a lousy defense. The light went on late in the year, and there's reason to believe he'll improve dramatically in Year 2. New Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has done wonders with cornerbacks far less talented than Rhodes, and Zimmer's preference for press man cornerbacks perfectly suits Rhodes' playing style.
Let's be honest: Zimmer's track record pushed Rhodes onto our list.
Rhodes was at his worst when asked to play zone defense. He allowed too much cushion in front of him and let smaller, quicker receivers pick up easy first downs. Teams knew that Rhodes struggled covering receivers over the middle and exploited it. While Zimmer's style of defense will mitigate that weakness, every NFL cornerback has to play man and zone coverage.
It was a good sign late in the year to see the Vikings allow Rhodes to stay on the field every down, even tracking Jordy Nelson to the slot for a few snaps. The competition in the NFC North is absolutely brutal for a No. 1 cornerback. Rhodes will have to check Nelson, Megatron and the Bears' twin towers for six more games. The duos in Atlanta, Washington and Tampa Bay will also provide tricky matchups. With weekly opportunities to get embarrassed, Rhodes must learn to live with being the other guy in a few highlights.
Penalties are another way to grab negative attention. Rhodes is rather handsy, and he spent the first half of his rookie year learning what officials would allow down the field. (Note: You can't just grab guys while the ball is in the air.) Ultimately, Rhodes' aggression is a good problem to have. It's his only chance to persevere in this division.
Expectations for 2014
Expecting a Pro Bowl in his second season is too much, but Rhodes can set the groundwork by holding his own against the game's best receivers. Eight of Rhodes' passes defensed last year came in his last three games, and he should learn to turn some of those deflections into interceptions in Year 2. Combined with last year's Making the Leap favorite Harrison Smith, Rhodes can bring respectability to a beleaguered secondary.
To put it another way: No one should be pushing Rhodes to the ground this season.