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Notebook: Rhodes Credits Influence of Zimmer, Newman for Progression

MANKATO, Minn. —Xavier Rhodes heard the criticism but quickly learned to take the coaching.

Rhodes was in just his second NFL season in 2014 when Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray arrived in Minnesota.

Rhodes had shown glimpses of potential, recording the second-most pass breakups in a season in team history (23) as a rookie, and also left room for improvement as the 25th overall pick in 2013.

Enter Zimmer — who's been dubbed by many, including 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes, as a "DB guru" — to harp on the details and push Rhodes toward full-potential.

"Xavier! Xavier!" Zimmer would squawk at a higher pitch than his usual tone.

Once the coach had the cornerback's attention, he quickly passed along information in a way that helped build Rhodes' confidence.

It has shown on the field the past two seasons. Rhodes recorded a team-best five interceptions in 2016 en route to his first Pro Bowl selection.

After Rhodes inked a multi-year contract extension on Sunday, he admitted his initial impression of Zimmer on the practice field was, 'Man, he needs to lay off, get off my back.'

"But I mean, it turned out great. He was on me each and every play," Rhodes said. "There were times we were in the red zone, and I had him in the back of my head, 'Xavier, back up. Xavier, put your inside foot.'

"I was like, 'Coach, the offense isn't even lined up yet. What are you telling me to back up?' But he's always been on me, he's always believed in me," Rhodes added. "He always told me, 'You know, I'm going to work you hard until you're the best corner in the league.' He trusted in me, and to this day I really thank him."

In addition to Zimmer, Rhodes thanked the Wilf Family ownership group, General Manager Rick Spielman, his agent Sunny Shah, his mentor (and former NFL cornerback) Terrell Buckley, high school coach Torriano Brooks, college coaches at Florida State and Vikings coaches and teammates in his opening remarks.

Zimmer said Rhodes' focus on concentration before the snap has allowed him to be more impactful during games.

"I think his biggest step is he comes out here and is focused on what he's got to do," Zimmer said. "He's able to play the game better as opposed to trying to learn the technique, learn responsibilities and things like that."

Rhodes also referenced everything that he's learned from Trae Waynes since the 2003 first-round pick of the Cowboys arrived in Minnesota in 2015.

"Terence Newman is a guy that helped me understand the things I need to work on, and that's knowing [what to expect on particular down and distances]," Rhodes said. "He always told me that I have the athletic ability, but it's the knowledge part that I needed to gain.

"That's what I've been working on since day one, since he's been here, progressing it each year, and last year was the year that it really clicked for me," Rhodes added. "This year I'm trying to take it to a whole new level. Harrison [Smith], [Andrew] Sendejo, [Anthony] Barr and the whole defense, those guys look to me for making plays when they need to be made. I just love those guys."

The Vikings have been able to entrust Rhodes with shadowing an opponent's top receiver. He limited Giants Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. to a career-low 23 yards on Monday Night Football last season.

Zimmer was asked about the significance of a corner like Rhodes.

"It is [important] for us because we like to lock guys up, and I think last year he showed that he could go against some of the better receivers and do a good job," Zimmer said. "So anytime you get guys like that, I think it's valuable."

Spielman also spoke to what Rhodes has meant to the Vikings so far and said the personnel department is pleased to re-sign yet another core player. Minnesota re-signed Everson Griffen to a contract extension on Wednesday.

"Just excited to get Xavier Rhodes signed, there's no question about what he brings to us on the field, especially at that position," Spielman said. "This is another strategic planning that we put in place this offseason, knowing how many young guys we want to keep.

"We want as many of these young core players together as we possibly can," Spielman said. "Xavier was a high priority coming into this offseason, and we wanted to make sure that we got him locked in to be a Minnesota Viking for most of his career, hopefully ending his career with us."

Rhodes also is planning for the future. Asked what his first purchase with new contract money is going to be, Rhodes said, "It will be diapers, a crib, a lot of baby stuff, you know, that's basically all."

He has one son, Justin, and is expecting another child in November.

Sunday's situation

Zimmer has been hammering the Vikings with situational football exercises throughout the offseason.

On Sunday near the end of practice, he had the first team offense take the ball at its own 9-yard line with under three minutes to go. Facing a third-and-2, Kyle Rudolph tried to connect with Stefon Diggs. Smith was in coverage, and the pass fell incomplete. Refs through a flag, but the team continued with a punt by Taylor Symmank that netted 33 yards.

Zimmer then opted have Anthony Harris at quarterback working with the second-team offense against the second-team defense.

Heinicke alternated completions between rookie tight end Eric Wilson and veteran Adam Thielen. Hodges gained 9, then Bishop Sankey rushed for 4. Floyd caught a 17-yard reception to place the ball at the 18. Hodges caught a 2-yard gain. One play later, Heinicke drilled a throw into the end zone and Floyd secured it with an impressive diving catch.

'A little bit of a load'

The Vikings continued alternating Nick Easton and Pat Elflein at center with the first team on Sunday.

Zimmer was asked to assess Elflein, a third-round pick out of Ohio State, after two days in full pads. The coach pointed across the line to the stiff competition each faces when working against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Joseph.

"It's two days. There's good and bad, like all of them," Zimmer said. "He's learning. He's pretty sharp on the calls and things like that. [He and Nick Easton] have to go against Linval every day, so that's a little bit of a load, but he has good plays and bad plays."

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