The Vikings are only four practices into training camp, but fans are already eager to hear progress reports and playing time projections for rookie CB Trae Waynes. A pass defense that made huge strides under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer last year is in position to make another significant step forward this season if a few things fall into place, with perhaps none more important than Waynes fitting in well.
Waynes was selected 11th overall by the Vikings. The expectations attached with being drafted that high are large, but Waynes has the ability to fulfill them and contribute just as fellow former first-round picks in the Vikings secondary such as CBs Terence Newman (2003) and Xavier Rhodes (2013) and S Harrison Smith (2012). No, the question on Waynes is not ability, skill set or talent. It's about learning Zimmer's defense and improving every day. It's also about Zimmer and his defensive staff learning more about the player.
The latter point has been the focus of Zimmer's commentary when he's been asked about Waynes. There are two approaches a staff can take when it comes to teaching rookies. One is to throw the book at them and the other is to narrow their focus on a subset of the playbook. Zimmer has indicated the strategy with Waynes is similar to that which they took with LB Anthony Barr last year – throw the book at them. The Vikings have been training Waynes outside at cornerback as well as inside as a nickel cornerback.
"There is a lot more that goes in there," Zimmer said about playing inside as the nickel. "But I still feel like the more things that we can give him to do, (it's) kind of what we like to do with a lot of young guys — give them a lot of stuff to do, and if we have to, pare it down as opposed to saying, 'Well, he can't do that,' and never knowing if they can. It would be good for his overall development of his game, just by understating things that happen inside as well."
Waynes has been a man of few words so far at training camp, a disposition that doesn't yield much insight into how he's feeling but also one that is probably best given this is his first training camp and he's being asked to learn so much. His teammates aren't shy to speak on the topic, though, and so far the peer reviews are good.
"(Waynes is) doing a great job," fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "They've got him all over the place right now. They're trying to teach him a lot of different things, and I think he's doing very well with that. It's tough to be in the NFL period, and when you're trying to teach a guy three to four positions, it's very tough. I think he's doing a great job. He's a fast learner, and I'm expecting great things from him this year."
How much he does wind up contributing this season remains to be seen. But there are many encouraging signs, from his demeanor to the way his head coach speaks about him. There is a high degree of trust in Zimmer's methods inside Vikings camp because of the coach's long history in the League and also because of the work he did with Rhodes last season. Rhodes, whose development remains on-going, clearly progressed significantly last season. The clearest sign he did so aside from his outstanding play on the field was the fact that Rhodes sought out Zimmer in the locker room following a Week 17 win to thank the coach for being so hard on him while simultaneously trusting him every step of the way.
A similar narrative will likely surround the Waynes-Zimmer relationship and it won't be surprising if the results are similar, too.
"He's doing well. I think once we get going with more of the press stuff he'll even continue to look better," Zimmer said. "Just like Xavier [Rhodes] will continue to look better, [Terence] Newman will look better once we get in the swing of things with this. But, Trae's done a nice job. I like him. I think he's got a chance to be a good football player."