For the next week or so, we’ll summarize everything that came out of the final Minnesota Vikings locker room sessions before the team disbanded for the offseason. We’re calling it our End of Season Series.
One might say there’s no more important position on a modern NFL defense than corner. At minimum, one might say it’s the most meaningful position to head coach Mike Zimmer, who’s clinically groomed young Minnesota Vikings cornerbacks into rising stars during his five-year tenure.
Xavier Rhodes was his first project and thus far his most successful pupil. His 2017 contract extension — worth up to $70.1 million — also made him one of the most expensive Vikings and raised expectations for the former first-round pick going forward.
Rhodes missed just two games in 2018, but he struggled to stay on the field in roughly half of the 14 he did play. In five of the last eight games, he played fewer than 80 percent of snaps, which required the Vikings to play musical chairs at cornerback. Rookie Holton Hill was frequently called upon as his backup, and while he performed admirably in many tough situations, Hill gave up several big plays in Minnesota’s Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears, prompting Zimmer to say “we kind of ran out of defensive backs.”
When Rhodes was on the field, he was virtually as good as previous seasons in terms of yards and receptions allowed, giving up 45 catches and 470 yards in 14 games this year after surrendering 46 catches and 553 yards in 16 games last year, per Pro Football Focus. But he also had a penchant for penalties with nine, and his absence for stretches of big games had an incalculable effect.
“I’ve been fighting injuries all this year,” Rhodes said on Monday. “It was one of those things where I probably wasn’t going to finish the game and I didn’t want to hurt the team. It was a situation against Detroit, I was covering and I ended up getting injured and he was open. So you didn’t want that situation to happen where it could have been an important drive and I fall down. We were being more cautious than anything. I didn’t want to hurt my team going out there and knowing I had a problem.”
Rhodes dealt with hamstring, foot, ankle and groin injuries throughout the year — an unenviable collection of maladies for a position that requires rapid lateral movement, lightning-fast acceleration and quick cuts.
The sixth-year corner suffered numerous mid-game injuries that appeared serious, only to return moments later, or at minimum the following week. Rhodes missed the Oct. 28 loss to the New Orleans Saints and the Week 17 loss to Chicago, but he was rarely a full participant in practice by the end of the year. Zimmer quipped several times that he’d come to expect a banged-up Rhodes.
“You can’t control injuries in this game,” said Rhodes. “You just can’t. I tried this season to do the most, but it happens, so I’ve just got to be better at maintaining my composure, not doing too much. Maybe I was overdoing it, overworking my body this year, and when one injury happened, I was just trying to get back on the field as fast as possible and it caused another one. So maybe that was a lesson learned for me to not do too much when I have an injury lingering.”
Rhodes still has four years remaining with over $50 million in cap hits on his lucrative deal. Considering he played decently through nagging injuries, there’s reason to believe a healthier Rhodes could be even more effective in 2019. Don’t forget: the Vikings gave up the third-fewest passing yards in the league, even with Rhodes missing over a quarter of the snaps.
He has also turned into a veteran voice that guided rookies Hill and Mike Hughes throughout the season, mimicking the leadership of defensive backs coach Terence Newman. Rhodes said he plans to work out with the young defensive backs in the offseason.
As for the rumors of Rhodes decline, he thinks age will only enhance his performance.
“We’re fine like wine,” he said.