As a quiet and reserved person, Trae Waynes enjoys blending into the background, so when he was suddenly thrown into the fire (on a -6 degree day) during the Minnesota Vikings’ Wild Card game at TCF Bank Stadium last January, it took a second to realize it. That is, until he made a key interception on a tipped ball in the second half.
Waynes was charged with backup duty most of the season and, thanks to a healthy cornerback group, only saw the field for a handful of quarters during the 16-game schedule. But given a chance in the team’s lone playoff game, Waynes left a lasting impression with the fan base that he was ready to take on a more significant role in his second season within Mike Zimmer’s defense.
It won’t be given to him, though. Terence Newman is back for his 14th season and hopes to start once again on the outside. “He’s got an old guy in front of him that’s been in the system for a long time,” said Captain Munnerlyn. “Terence, he wants to play.”
While Waynes might be the future, Newman still has plenty in the tank as the team’s elder statesman. “Not really much different,” Zimmer said of Newman. “He’s the same guy.”
Waynes, who just turned 24 last week, has come a long way since his first preseason game – just under a year ago. In that game against Pittsburgh, he committed two defensive holding penalties and drew a defensive pass interference flag; a rude awakening in his first NFL action. That performance seemed to act as a propellant for Waynes, however, who improved in each successive outing and generally held his own — with a few hiccups — when called upon in the regular season, albeit in small sample sizes.
As the pads went on for the first time Sunday at training camp, Waynes looked strong once again. “I think yesterday you could tell he had a lot of recall from what he’s done in the offseason, from what he had last year,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said Monday morning. “The first couple days we’re not allowed to press, and then yesterday he kind of got up there a few times, you could see him. He’s very good in and out of the break and those kind of things.”
Zimmer was more specific on Sunday about what he wanted to see from Waynes after watching the first two unpadded practices. His chief concern was making sure Waynes put himself in good positions to finish off plays. “I’ve been working with him quite a bit to try to get him to finish plays a little bit better,” said Zimmer. “He’s been really close a lot of times. One time there was a play yesterday where there was a crossing route, and instead of going in front of the receiver to try to knock the ball down he tries to go behind it, and he gets shielded by the receiver’s body, so it’s some of those things that he has to continue to do.”
This was an issue at times in Waynes’ rookie campaign. He was excellent at recovering to guard deep passes, but often overran the receiver on comeback routes or ceded inside position to the pass catcher, which led to a good amount of intermediate completions against him. You can see this in the two GIFs below, which our film guru Luke Inman compiled. The first one is Week 4 against Kansas City (bottom of the screen). The second one in Week 14 against Arizona when he was matched up with Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. (top of the screen).
Sunday afternoon in Mankato rendered good results for Waynes against first-round pick Laquon Treadwell as the cornerbacks utilized press coverage for the first time. On at least three occasions (that this reporter could see) Waynes was put in a jump ball situation against Treadwell, gained the inside position and denied the catch. “Trae’s a quiet guy, but he listens,” said Zimmer. “He tries to do what you ask him to do.”
It might have been a conversation with the head coach that put Waynes in the proper mindset heading into the team’s first day of press. Zimmer spoke with Waynes last Saturday about how they could get the most out of his strengths, which likely played into his enhanced play on Sunday afternoon. “The kid has got great acceleration,” Zimmer said. “I actually asked him what he thought his best asset was yesterday. From there that conversation went to, ‘How can we use your assets better than what we are right now?’”
Waynes should get a chance to run with the first team a bit during the preseason. While Zimmer and Co. understand what Newman brings to the table, they’ll be watching closely to see if Waynes can pop and show them some more plays like this.
Luke Inman contributed to this story.