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Xavier Rhodes' Confidence Soaring Heading into 2017

After sprinting the entire length of the field and just a handful of graceful strides before hitting the end zone, Xavier Rhodes spread his arms, clutching the football in his right hand, and glided in for the score. 

"I felt like I was running fast, so I just did the plane," Rhodes said, smiling, of his mid-run celebration.

The 100-yard return marked Rhodes' first career touchdown and seventh interception since being drafted by Minnesota in 2013.

It's a play he's seen replayed many times over – both in his mind and literally.

"I go home, my family is playing it," Rhodes said. "The fans tell me about the play [via] social media, remind me. Here [at Winter Park], the highlights here sometimes. It's everywhere, basically." 

In 2016 Rhodes matched up against some of the NFL's most talented wide receivers, including Kelvin Benjamin, Odell Beckham, Jr., and DeAndre Hopkins. Combined, the trio recorded just 79 total yards against the cornerback.

Rhodes has flourished under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, his confidence level soaring particularly over the past two seasons.

Rhodes has gleaned information from everyone: from Zimmer, to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, to veterans on the team like Trae Waynes. He's learned where his strengths lie and how to effectively utilize his 6-foot-1, 218-pound frame.

"I'm just using my physicality to my full advantage," Rhodes said. "I can run, also. I'm pretty fast and big, so I try to use it to the point of knocking the timing off between the quarterback and the receiver and trying to gain ground once that happens and get under the route or be on top of the route and pick it off."

After seeing three NFL seasons accumulate behind him with only two total interceptions, Rhodes nabbed five picks in 2016, wrapping up a season that Zimmer called "obviously his best ever."

"I think Xavier has had a good year," Zimmer said of Rhodes in closing out the 2016 season. "He's a great kid, great competitor, tries to do his very best every single day he walks into the building. Always has a smile on his face, always trying to learn."

Rhodes' dedication to the game paid off when he received his first career Pro Bowl nod. Rather than accept many accolades for himself, however, he largely credited the four defensive teammates who also participated in the all-star game.

He said the Pro Bowl votes reflected the Minnesota defense playing together.

"One heartbeat," Rhodes said of the unit. "We're starting to learn if everyone does [his] job, everyone will be rewarded. That's how we feel, and we hold everyone accountable to that.

"That's why we had some Pro Bowlers on defense," he added. "Because everyone was doing their job."

Entering the 2017 season, Rhodes has his eyes set on not only repeating last year's performance but improving it. He has spent the offseason grinding away in preparing for Year 5, and he believes more than ever in himself and in the defensive corps that Zimmer has established since arriving in 2014.

In turn, Rhodes has the trust of his teammates.

Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who sometimes competes against Rhodes during practice, has noticed the cornerback's consistent development.

"He's playing with a lot of confidence," Thielen said of Rhodes this spring. "He had a great year last year. He's another guy who is going to come to work every day and bust his tail. It's great for me to see guys like that have success because they deserve it. He's one of those guys that deserves it."

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