Xavier Rhodes held the No. 13 jersey in his hands and surveyed the locker room.
He had traded his purple Vikings No. 29 on the field at TCF Bank Stadium with former college teammate, Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin, moments before and was looking for his equipment bag. Rhodes located it, tucked the memento inside and stepped back toward his locker.
It was the most intentional distance Rhodes had placed between himself and the jersey on a day in which Rhodes blanketed the receiver. Rhodes didn't allow a catch on the five direct matchups when Cam Newton targeted Benjamin and nearly recorded his second interception of the season.
The defensive effort was continuation of a string of stinginess by Rhodes. According to football evaluation site, Pro Football Focus, Rhodes has allowed seven catches for 98 yards on the 149 snaps of coverage he's played in the past four games.
Rhodes' 6-1, 210-pound frame is longer and stronger than many cornerbacks, but his growth of understanding the position in the pros has helped him stand taller in his second NFL season.
Rhodes said his confidence, a critical attribute for a cornerback that can't be measured by devices, is what has grown the most this season.
"Last year I was just beginning to come in the league, learn the scheme of things, learn how things go, and this year I know how things go," Rhodes said. "I'm able to get the plays and not overthink it and also getting to know the coaching, being able to take the coaching. Last year, I didn't know how anything was so it's too much going on me at once."
There's often a progression that benefits players from their rookie seasons to their second years in the pros because of the extra time in the system. The Vikings, however, have changed defensive schemes and strategies under first-year Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
View exclusive images shot by the team photographer from the 12th game of 2014 as the Vikings took on the Panthers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Zimmer said the role of a cornerback in the system is "one of the hardest jobs there is, what we ask them to do, but it's simple as far as once you understand the game, it slows the game down quite a bit."
New secondary coach Jerry Gray has worked with Rhodes to refine techniques that Rhodes implements based on the defensive call, what the opponent is doing schematically and which receiver is his responsibility on the play. Gray said Rhodes has gotten "a lot better" from when they began working together during organized team activities last spring.
"When you look at him when we first came in in OTAs, you could see he was kind of all over the place," Gray said. "He was trying to figure out where he fits in learning the new defense so you put it in almost like a baby calf who is getting his legs under him, and at this point in the season, I think he understands what he needs to do, what he's been doing, what he's called to do and this defense fits him.
"He's a long guy with long arms, great technique right now," Gray continued. "If you put the first play of OTAs to now, you see a much improved player and when you improve, your confidence grows and that's where he is in this state. Keep making the plays you're supposed to make, don't try to do too much, and I think he's going to be really good."
Rhodes' physical attributes helped make him a first-round selection as a redshirt junior out of Florida State in 2013, and now he's focused on best applying them. In addition to working with Vikings coaches, Rhodes relies on a relationship he developed while at FSU with former Seminoles cornerback Terrell Buckley, who was also drafted in the first round and played seasons in the NFL.
"Terrell Buckley really came back and coached me a lot. He's one of Florida State's greatest," Rhodes said. "We talk here and there. He's still trying to coach me up. I think after the Atlanta game he called me and was getting on my technique."
Rhodes' game against the Falcons included matchups with Julio Jones, a big target in size and propensity for Matt Ryan. Rhodes set a career high with four pass breakups that game, but he said Buckley saw room for improvement.
"T-Buck doesn't care about stats," Rhodes said. "He's a big technique guy. That's the only thing he cares about. As long as your technique is good and where it needs to be, the plays will come to you. When I was at college, that was his thing with me.
"He always watches my footwork, same thing here with Coach 'Zim,' " Rhodes added. "He's big on footwork, moving your feet, staying in front of the receiver. Technique is a big thing at corner, so for a coach to know that is big. That's a good thing because you're technique is going to help you fight through the game when you're tired and can't rely on your talent."
Drastic changes in a scheme early in a player's career could be overwhelming or intimidating but Rhodes has approached it as an opportunity.
He said "it's been a blessing" to work with Zimmer, who built strong secondaries as he coordinated top defenses multiple times before arriving in Minnesota, and Gray, a four-time Pro Bowler at the position.
"I've been playing real good this year and they've just been on me, teaching me the techniques and been on me about the little things," Rhodes said. "Even if I'm doing good, it's always room for improvement. They tell me I'm doing good, but there's always something to improve on."
If Rhodes had a choice of coverage, he'd likely choose to mix it up with a receiver at the line of scrimmage and take advantage of his size and strength. Offenses, however, know that Rhodes' physicality is one of his advantages and can try to limit his opportunities to do so through formations or pre-snap shifts. Another factor is the differences in the physical attributes of receivers.
"Each receiver each week is different," Rhodes said. "You have your Brandon Marshalls that are real physical so you cannot be too physical with those guys because they'll throw you around — Calvin Johnson, too. With the Jordy Nelsons, you can't really be physical with those guys because they're shifty and things like that. A lot of the quick receivers, you can be too aggressive with those guys because they're real shifty. You can miss them, and once you miss them at the jam, they can get away from you. With the big guys, they're looking for that contact."
Gray said Rhodes is improving when he draws matchups against shiftier receivers.
"I think he's learning the difference in those two," Gray said. "When you go against big wide receivers, the guys in Atlanta, the guys in Chicago, he matches up really well with them, but I ask him, 'How do you match up with a little guy, what are you trying to do there?' So you may have to change it up a little bit and that's where your technique strengthens yourself because you don't just want to say, 'I'm good against big guys. I'm not good against little guys,' so that's where he's learning how to grow and study."
Despite his enthusiasm for man coverage, Rhodes also benefited by playing his role in a zone defense this season. He recorded his first career interception by nabbing a pass by Jay Cutler before halftime I Week 11, but said grabbing the ball he will keep as a memento started with technique.
View images from Xavier Rhodes' first day as a Viking as he and the other two first round picks arrived at Winter Park on Friday, April 26, 2013.
"You have to always have your technique right, and then you have to know your job," Rhodes said. "On that play, my job was to play high-low, and the quarterback just threw it right in my area so I had to go get it."
Earlier this season, Zimmer said he wants the secondary to have a mindset of preventing a catch every time.
"That's kind of always been my mantra with the corners, and people don't realize this and everybody wants to get interceptions," Zimmer said. "I got that, but there's something to be said about your guy not catching the ball and them having to go somewhere else. To me, that's a big value if my guy isn't catching the ball because I can worry about other things, and maybe I'm the only one that thinks that way but I do."
In training to prevent receptions, Rhodes has been quite receptive to new information, Gray said.
"It's great because you find a guy who's been receptive to everything you're trying to teach and the big thing is we've got a lot of techniques and you're trying to master them and this is your first year," Gray said. "My job is to make sure I don't throw four or five at him in a day, 'Let's master this before we move to the next one.' He's kind of putting those in a compartment and saying, 'Here's what this means, here's what that means. I've moved from here to here and we don't ever stop growing.'
"You're only going to keep getting better and when you master all the techniques, now you can study the game, you can learn what the receivers are trying to do," Gray said. "That's going to be his improvement from year one of playing in this system to year two because he won't have to worry about his techniques. We've got to keep staying on him, but that's when he's going to take that jump."