When the Minnesota Vikings signed former Dallas Cowboys safety Xavier Woods to replace Anthony Harris, many fans didn’t know how to feel about it. Woods was coming off his worst year in the NFL, allowing a career-high four touchdowns and a 129.0 passer rating. There were a few pertinent reasons for Woods’ demise in Dallas, but playing in Minnesota should help him bounce back to the player he was from 2017 to 2019.
For starters, Woods played on one of the worst defenses in football last year. The weak front seven, highlighted by the struggling linebackers and nonexistent defensive tackles, allowed 2,541 rushing yards, second most in the NFL, forcing Woods to play more in the box than he ever had in his career.
Woods played 441 of his 990 total snaps (44.5%) on the DL or in the box. For comparison, he played just 388 of his 2,408 snaps (16.1%) either on the DL or in the box from 2017-19. The Cowboys’ complex new defense was not tailored to Woods’ strengths. It is no coincidence that his play fell off as soon as the Cowboys stopped dropping him into coverage. Last year, Woods ranked sixth among safeties with at least 300 coverage snaps, giving up just 0.29 yards per coverage snap.
In contrast, the Vikings’ starting front seven touts two stout defensive tackles against the run game in Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce and one of the better linebacker duos in the NFL with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
The team is expected to have one of the best run defenses in the league. Because of this, they can dedicate more resources to their coverage unit. They will not be forced to stack the box as much as Dallas did. Even when they have to, they should avoid putting Woods in the box as much as possible to maximize his abilities.
Woods played next to fairly young, inexperienced players like Donovan Wilson, Trevon Diggs, and Chidobe Awuzie in Dallas. This won’t be the case in Minnesota. The Vikings have more proven players like Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Harrison Smith all over their secondary, which should help the team overall.
For example, Harrison Smith is the driving force of the Vikings’ secondary. Players like Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Harris have played their best seasons alongside Smith, posting PFF grades of 77.1 and 90.5, respectively. Sendejo has not been able to match that success after leaving Minnesota. He started 14 games for the Cleveland Browns last year, playing a career high 918 snaps, but he posted his lowest career PFF grade (42.6).
Woods said that playing with Smith is one of his biggest motivations for signing. “I was watching Harrison (Smith),” he said. “That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here, to be able to learn from him, be able to play (with).”
And that seems to have worked out. In mandatory minicamp and OTAs, Woods impressed the Vikings’ coaching staff and teammates like Patrick Peterson.
“He’s been really good for us, man,” Peterson said on his podcast. “Just a seasoned vet. Always going to be where he needs to be, going to make the right checks, make the right calls.”
Further, as a safety Woods is responsible for making sure he knows what the rest of the defense is doing and that he’s in the right position or helping out the right players. He seems to have taken on the vocal role well.
“I’ve coordinated this [defensive system] for eight years,” defensive assistant Paul Guenther said told Woods during mandatory minicamp, “I’ve been an [NFL] assistant since 2008, and I’ve never seen a guy communicate in his first year [in the system] as good as you.”
Like Vikings fans saw firsthand with Anthony Harris, Xavier Woods was also victim of a really bad defense around him. If these rave reviews continue and Woods bounces back to his pre-2020 form, the Vikings may have one of the better secondaries in the league once more.