Trae Waynes might be the final key that unlocks the Minnesota Vikings defense.
With talent at all three levels of the field, the Vikings defense could sport Pro Bowlers at every major position group on the defense — cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith are leading their respective positions as vote-getters while Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr are well-known enough to earn a spot, especially as former Pro Bowlers.
But defenses are not always built on how bright their stars are, instead requiring the consistent performance of the role players around them. The 2010 Vikings sent four defenders to the Pro Bowl and strong cases could have been made for Chad Greenway and Jared Allen, both of whom made the Pro Bowl the following year. Not only that, Pat Williams was playing well despite ending the season at 38 years old.
With all that talent, they ranked 18th in points allowed. Weaknesses at safety — Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah played at levels far below their peaks in Cincinnati and Kansas City, respectively — and one cornerback spot — Asher Allen — meant that all their pass-rushing and run-stopping prowess wasn’t worth much.
The 2017 Vikings defense could have been faced with similar problems. Question marks at safety, nickel corner and left cornerback were legitimate and though it appears that Andrew Sendejo has improved yet again at the position while the rotation of Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander at the nickel position seems fundamentally sound, the biggest worry might have been the play of Trae Waynes.
With Xavier Rhodes shadowing the offense’s top receiver, Waynes has had to deal with the consistent threat of opposing #2s.
Sometimes that’s not particularly intimidating — the former Michigan State product ended up locking down Josh Bellamy in Chicago and virtually erased Rashard Higgins against Cleveland. At other times, it’s meant going up against Jordy Nelson, Desean Jackson or Martavis Bryant.
For much of the year, teams trusted that matchup more than they trusted their top receiver shadowed by Xavier Rhodes. In the first seven weeks of the season, Trae Waynes was the most targeted defender on the Vikings in pass coverage and the fifth-most targeted cornerback in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
The decision to target Waynes worked for offenses, too. He gave up the sixth-most yards per snap in pass coverage and gave up receptions more often in coverage than all but two cornerbacks. When targeted, he allowed a completion rate of 69.4 percent, 11th-worst in the league.
The offense always has the advantage of getting to pick who they attack, meaning that a weakness in the defense can make many of the other players irrelevant, and it seemed like offenses had determined that that weakness was Trae Waynes. Waynes was responsible for 28.9 percent of all the passing yards that the Vikings gave up in the first seven weeks of the season — that’s the third-worst rank in the NFL.
Much of this is a credit to the players surrounding Waynes. Having Xavier Rhodes on a team’s top receiver is equivalent to turning them from an 80-100 yard-a-game juggernaut to a 45-yard-a-game role player. Harrison Smith is the top safety in the league and the Vikings have generated solid coverage capability from their linebackers.
But Waynes himself hasn’t impressed when targeted — which is why he was among the league leaders in completion rate allowed and why opponents were so comfortable targeting his matchups than they were playing strength to strength and testing their top receivers against Xavier Rhodes.
Since Week 8, however, that’s changed pretty significantly.
Above is a chart that gives us a two-game average for both Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Rhodes has predictably spent most of his time this season in highlight territory among NFL players, Waynes had been below average until the middle of the season.
The markers for 5th percentile, NFL average and 95th percentile represent what the upper tiers, mid-range tiers and lower tiers of cornerback play in two-game stretches looks like, with the top two-game averages looking a lot like Xavier Rhodes’ game four to game five result — he allowed four yards in 65 snaps, or 0.06 yards given up per snap in coverage.
Though Rhodes does suffer a little bit in the last two games — which includes a pass to Marvin Jones that feels unevaluable — it’s clear that he’s been performing at a high level throughout the season while Waynes had been a liability until about the midpoint of the season.
I asked Ian Wharton, who does deep-dive film work on players in the secondary for Bleacher Report, about whether or not he thought there was any improvement from Waynes from his perspective this season.
He thought so, and elaborated on Waynes’ technique to that end.
“Waynes has seemed to learn how to mitigate his physical limitations by refining his footwork in coverage,” explained Wharton. “He’ll always be stiff in the hips, but he’s offset that by taking smaller strides and quicker steps to help him change direction. He’s much improved recognizing routes and tendencies, leading to far fewer blown coverages.”
Early in the season, Waynes definitively struggled with recognition and overextension. In Week 1, this snap against Ted Ginn (at the top of the screen) is a good combination of both problems.
The improved route recognition and shorter steps show up in the below clip (top of the screen), and when he’s in press, he’s done a better job of feeling out routes and anticipating receivers.
At the top of the screen in the below clip you can see him keeping a hand on the opposing receiver and staying close with him throughout the route, even as the route breaks inside — an issue he had early in his career and in college.
As a result of this recent improvement in play, his cumulative yards per snap on the season is creeping closer to the league-average of 1.08. Currently, his season average is 1.5 yards, but since Week 8 he’s averaged 1.18 yards given up per snap in coverage.
If Trae Waynes has finally improved from liability to asset, the Vikings defense itself can move beyond good to great.