With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at just how much of a burden the Minnesota Vikings’ top cornerback is for opposing wideouts.

Only a handful of teams ask their best cornerback to travel with the opponent’s best receiver on nearly every down; only Patrick PetersonDarius SlayMalcolm ButlerMorris Claiborne, and Xavier Rhodes shadowed in 10 or more games last season, per Pro Football Focus. With a new scheme potentially leading to Peterson shadowing less in order to free him up for more interceptions, by the end of the season we might be talking about Rhodes as the baddest shadow man in the league.

Rhodes Closed

Rhodes, the Vikings’ No. 25 overall selection of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Florida State, combines twitchy athleticism with ball skills in a safety-like 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame. Rhodes helped pave the way for new-age corners such as Jalen Ramsey and Marshon Lattimore, tall playmakers who play defense because they want to and not because they lack the ball skills or athleticism to play offense.

After an up-and-down first few years in the league, Rhodes has made consecutive Pro Bowls and earned First-Team All-Pro honors in 2017. His list of victims ranged far and wide (with the notable exception of the league’s best contested-catch artist):

Per our NFL Trends tool, the 10 wide receivers Rhodes shadowed last season combined to average a -0.42 Plus/Minus on DraftKings.

Rhodes’ combination of length and athleticism helps make him one of the only corners in the league capable of causing problems for big-bodied athletes such as Julio Jones and A.J. Green. Scheme and fatigue can prohibit cornerbacks from covering a receiver for every snap during a game, but Rhodes makes things more difficult for opposing offenses than the typical shadow corner.

Even when a corner shadows a receiver, few will chase them into the slot (though this is a two-way street, as not all receivers can line up in the slot). While Rhodes only moved into the slot for a handful of snaps per game last season, in the playoffs he demonstrated the ability to win his fair share of battles inside with Michael Thomas, the league leader in yards per route run from the slot.

 

The transition wasn’t perfect: Thomas earned one of his two touchdowns that day in Rhodes’ coverage. Still, the Vikings’ willingness to overhaul their scheme in order to match up Rhodes on the offense’s biggest threat with the season on the line speaks volumes to how they view their No. 1 corner.

A cornerback that possesses the skill set and defensive coordinator to orchestrate a part-time job in the slot is scary to go up against in fantasy. Still, Rhodes likely won’t be used in this capacity during every game of 2018. The Vikings didn’t ask Rhodes to shadow early on last season while he dealt with a hip injury, or in matchups against limiting passing attacks without a clear-cut No. 1 wideout such as the Bears, Ravens, Browns (pre-Josh Gordon), and Rams.

Most weeks won’t yield a decisive answer as to whether or not Rhodes will cover a specific receiver, but the rest of the Vikings defense makes them a unit to generally avoid regardless.

Avoiding Rhodes Presents Other Problems

Continuity is an underrated aspect in virtually every sport. Having a shutdown corner like Rhodes is great, but in order for the sum of parts to be greater than the individual pieces, players must have ample opportunity to learn how to play with each other. The Vikings have managed to largely dominate on the defensive side of the ball with the same group of players since Mike Zimmer became head coach and George Edwards became defensive coordinator in 2014. Things aren’t shaping up to be any different this time around:

The Vikings defense improved all the way from 23rd overall in DVOA in Year 1 under Zimmer to second last season, per Football Outsiders. Per the Trends tool, the Vikings have been one of the league’s top-five stingiest defenses Plus/Minus allowed for the past two seasons not only to wide receivers, but quarterbacks and running backs as well.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that offenses can’t thrive by simply avoiding Rhodes. Per the Trends tool, in the 10 games that Rhodes shadowed in 2017, the opponent’s top non-Rhodes-shadowed wideout averaged a DraftKings Plus/Minus of -0.70. The best bet opponents had was targeting their tight ends, a position which the Vikings ranked 17th in Plus/Minus allowed.

The only new starter on the Vikings defense is Sheldon Richardson, the much-maligned former Jets and Seahawks defensive tackle whose attitude and poor locker room conduct knocked his price tag down to the Vikings’ price range. At the very least, Richardson gives the Vikings a chance of capturing some of the interior playmaking ability they hoped former first-rounder Sharrif Floyd would be able to provide. The more disruptive the Vikings’ front is, the more lethal it makes players like Rhodes on the back end.

2018 Outlook

Targeting a wide receiver against the Vikings requires several leaps of faith, including that player having:

  • The ability to beat Rhodes in man coverage.
  • A coach capable of scheming him open if Rhodes is too much to handle.
  • An offensive line and quarterback capable of fending off their ferocious front seven.

As the data from our Trends tool shows, it has not been a good idea to target the Vikings defense, and that’s especially true for any No. 1 receiver that has a shadow date with Rhodes.

Pictured above: Xavier Rhodes
Photo credit: Brad Rempel – USA TODAY Sports