When the Minnesota Vikings released Xavier Rhodes in March, few were surprised. Rhodes played poorly through injury in 2019, and his release came with a tasty $8 million salary cap credit. Rhodes himself may be the only person who didn’t see it coming. But in hindsight, the Vikings may want a mulligan on this. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler are struggling. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, when available, aren’t much of an improvement. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Rhodes earned AFC Player of the Week honors.
Rhodes has been a roller coaster since his All-Pro 2017 season. His decline was jarring, as is his resurrection. Barring the occult or other supernatural happenings, there must be an explanation. So let’s set out to find it.
To understand what Rhodes lost in 2018 and 2019, you have to understand what he had to lose in the first place. In 2017, Rhodes was essentially on an island. Many play designs force the safeties to choose between one route and another, and Zimmer could simply tell his safeties to leave Rhodes one-on-one and pick up the other guy. This simplified things dramatically, led to numbers advantages and easier assignments for everyone.
Here’s a short video explaining this:[videopress RvOghY3S]
Rhodes did a session on NFL Game Pass’s Film Room explaining how he was able to read, react and win one-on-one against so many great receivers. He described everything from tape study, counting steps and watching a receiver’s body language.
But by 2019, he had lost that edge. Whether players were catching on to his system, or he was just losing his rhythm, things went sour. Injuries may have contributed as well. Whatever the reason, he had to use safer, less effective techniques to get his confidence back:[videopress 6LmHTHMN]
So when the Vikings released him in the 2020 offseason, it wasn’t solely about salary cap. He could no longer perform the function that the Vikings were happy to pay for in 2017. He may be a decent veteran cornerback in a more standard role, but if they were looking for that, they could find it cheaper. Despite Minnesota offering him a reduced salary for his reduced role, he took his chances elsewhere.
The Colts signed him to a one-year, $3.25 million contract. As a 30 year-old cornerback coming off of a down season, Indianapolis wasn’t asking him to shut down an entire side of the field. The Colts use more zone coverage than your average team, which gives Rhodes a lot less to worry about. He can funnel routes inside instead of having to set up for every possibility. He can pass off deep routes to safeties and monitor the quarterback’s eyes instead of trying to read receivers:[videopress cIP9oxcI]
This doesn’t come without a cost. With an easier job for Rhodes comes harder responsibilities for everyone else. With Kenny Moore and Darius Leonard, that’s not a problem for Indianapolis. The Vikings are already using zone schemes and safety help to protect their young cornerbacks as much as possible. If they’re forced to do that anyways, they may as well do it with young cornerbacks who are cheaper and could develop into better starters.
Further, all that zone coverage is susceptible to more dynamic offenses. When they have the men to run it, the Vikings man-match can produce much better results. The best version of the Vikings’ defense, 2017, was historic. The 2020 Colts are good, but unspectacularly so. Zone coverage is safer, easier, but ultimately less potent. The Colts didn’t necessarily unlock a secret the Vikings couldn’t, they’re just satisfied with a Cover 2 zone corner. The Vikings scheme puts less value on that, so there wouldn’t be a place for Rhodes in Minnesota.