The Minnesota Vikings will put one of the NFL’s best defenses on the field this year.
Trae Waynes could make it even better.
Waynes was picked in the first round (No. 11) by the Vikings in 2015, with the idea that he would replace aging Terence Newman as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Xavier Rhodes. The plan hasn’t worked for two reasons: Newman refuses to play like a 38-year-old and Waynes hasn’t been good enough to displace him.
Waynes burst onto the scene as a sophomore at Michigan State in 2013, starting all 14 games and helping the Spartans knock off No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. He also had an interception in Michigan State’s first Rose Bowl since 1988.
He was just as good in 2014, starting every game as Michigan State went 11-2, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor. The Spartans finished the season ranked No. 5. Their only two losses were to Ohio State and Oregon, the participants in that season’s national championship game.
It wasn’t a surprise when he entered the 2015 draft, and he helped himself at the combine by running a 4.31 40-yard dash. The Vikings were happy to grab him, figuring he could break into the lineup slowly, with Rhodes and Newman as the top two cornerbacks at the beginning of the season. Things went even more slowly than anyone expected, though. Waynes barely got onto the field as a depth corner, although he did start one game when an injury crisis at safety forced Newman to that position.
Waynes finished the season well, making a few big plays after Newman was injured in a wild card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He broke up a deep pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett in the third quarter, and intercepted a fourth-down pass attempt.
The Vikings hoped that momentum would carry into 2016, and he got a chance to start the first two games of the season when Rhodes hurt his hamstring. He played well against the Tennessee Titans, but didn’t have nearly as much success against Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams of Green Bay in Week 2. He was replaced by rookie Mackensie Alexander at one point, and gave up a key fourth-down completion late in the game. However, his late interception clinched Minnesota’s victory.
In all, Waynes started nine games in 2016, intercepting three passes, but couldn’t play at a consistent-enough level to take Newman’s job on a permanent basis. However, he did impress general manager Rick Spielman enough to earn a shot at the No. 2 role this year, with Newman moving into the slot to replace Captain Munnerlyn.
“Trae has made tremendous strides,” Spielman said. “He has definitely been trending up. You saw it at the end of his rookie season, and it continued last year. He was making plays on the ball last year — plays that helped us win games.”
Waynes couldn’t ask for better players to learn from than his fellow cornerbacks. Rhodes has become a top-tier cover corner, while Newman is still efficient in his late 30s because of his football intelligence. Simply watching them every day in practice and training camp has to be an advantage for Waynes as he heads into his third season.
There has never been a question about Waynes’ athletic ability, but he still needs work on his technique. He has to play four games a season against Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, and the Vikings can’t afford him to get tangled up as often as he did against Green Bay early last season. Even with some additions to the offense, Minnesota’s chances of beating the Packers and Lions in the NFC North will rest on the performance of the defense, and Waynes needs to become a big part of that.
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