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Xavier Rhodes: Emerging from the Shadows

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Xavier Rhodes turns into the biggest movie buff each and every week.

But the Vikings cornerback isn’t interested in the latest horror flick or sci-fi feature.

Instead, Rhodes watches film over and over and over again on Minnesota’s upcoming opponent on his iPad. And more often than not, the All-Pro cornerback is locked in on what the other team’s top wide receiver is doing.

“I’ll leave the facility and watch more film. I’ve got to watch film all day,” Rhodes said. “That’s my job — to watch film and know my opponent before I go against my opponent.”

Rhodes’ NFL life is defined by shadowing opponents’ top receivers to shut down some of the NFL’s most-elite players.

Where they go before or after the snap, he follows to either side of the formation.

They sprint, he sprints. They cut, he cuts. They stop, he stops.

Detailed preparation is part of the success.

If Sunday’s test is against a speedster, Rhodes might study at how he gets in and out of his breaks. If the opponent’s best wide out is known as a physical guy, Rhodes may look at how he uses his size to body up a defender and make contested catches.

If the receiver has a bit of both attributes, that means extra film review for Rhodes.

“It’s the same preparation; you just look at their different tendencies,” Rhodes said of his exhaustive film work. “You have different receivers, different types of guys that run different routes. You look at how they run their routes, how they get in their routes, their different releases … you have to look at every detail of their game.

“Then you have to go off how you play and how you can adjust to their game and how they will adjust to your game in certain situations,” Rhodes added.

The Vikings routinely trust Rhodes to shadow some of the best wide receivers in the league.

In 2017 alone, Rhodes went up against Michael Thomas of the Saints, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Julio Jones of the Falcons and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green.

Each player in the aforementioned quintet ranked in the top 15 among wide receivers for receiving yards in 2017, and each topped 1,000 yards this past season.

All but one player made the Pro Bowl from that group, a high-end collection of talent that racked up 439 combined catches for 6,301 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2017.

But against Rhodes, the best performance came from Evans, who had seven catches for 67 yards. The stellar cornerback limited four of the five players to 50 receiving yards or less.

And none of them found the end zone.

“They’re all pretty tough, you know. You’re going against the best each and every week,” Rhodes said. “You’re going against a receiver that the quarterback wants to target eight or nine times a game.

“I have to be on my Ps and Qs so I can limit those targets or limit those catches,” Rhodes added. “That’s how I go into the game each and every week.”

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Rhodes began regularly covering opponents’ top options in the passing game on a full-time basis during the 2016 season.

“I guess it was about a year and a half ago maybe we started doing it,” Zimmer said earlier this season. “I guess that was kind of the time. I don’t know what led to that.

“I just think at that time we felt comfortable with him understanding all the different concepts that we try to do,” Zimmer added.

Ironically enough, both of Rhodes’ Pro Bowl appearances have come in the past two seasons. And in 2017, he earned First-Team All-Pro honors as a cornerback and was a Second-Team All-Pro selection as a defensive back.

Rhodes was a first-round pick out of Florida State in the 2013 NFL Draft. But it took him a few years to learn the nuances of the professional game before Minnesota’s coaching staff felt comfortable enough to leave him on an island.

“It ain’t given to you. The coaches have to trust in you to get that job done,” Rhodes said. “It’s something where you have to earn your guys’ trust to be able to shadow their best guy. That’s something I look forward to because it’s my job. I do it to the best of my ability because my teammates depend on me.

“Guys trust me to cover the best receiver. My teammates trust that I’ll get it done,” Rhodes added. “It helps me to realize that I have guys who believe in me and trust in me to get that job done. It’s tough and it’s a lot to ask, but I’m not afraid to do it.”

It’s easy to see why the Vikings defensive coaches have faith in Rhodes.

He’s long and lanky at 6-foot-2 but shows off his physicality as he hovers around 215 pounds.

And he has plenty of speed, as evident by the last time the Vikings and Cardinals squared off at U.S. Bank Stadium, in Week 11 of the 2016 season.

Rhodes picked off quarterback Carson Palmer and raced 100 yards for a second-quarter score, setting a franchise record in the process while reaching an astounding 22.40 miles per hour on his blazing return.

The 28-year-old clearly has the physical attributes to play in the NFL. But it’s the work he puts in behind the scenes and in the shadows that allows him to routinely smother the wide receiver across from him in coverage.

“Just playing in the NFL is not easy. Playing against … whoever you want to mention is not easy,” Rhodes said. “Just being in this league is not easy, it’s all about game-planning and knowing your opponent and their tendencies.

“Once you understand that, the game becomes a little easier for you and you start to understand football,” Rhodes added.

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