Trae Waynes is the Vikings' most improved player in 2017. Daniel House explains what's led to the young cornerback's evolution.
Updated: January 2, 2018, 3:15 p.m.
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
"Good things come to those who wait" is a phrase many people use in their daily lives. It's a mantra Vikings GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer weren't afraid to live by.
They heard the cries from fans and analysts alike who were questioning whether the team made a mistake when they selected cornerback Trae Waynes with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. A raw prospect with untapped potential, Mike Zimmer saw the chance to mold Waynes into a reliable starting cornerback. Zimmer took his time teaching Waynes, letting him wait in the wings as Terence Newman continued to play well at the age of 38.
Waynes, the young Michigan State product rotated into the secondary with Xavier Rhodes and Newman suffering injuries last year. He played just 55.9 percent of the total defensive snaps in 2016. Waynes was the 85th ranked defensive back (63.0) in 2016, according to PFF. Fans and analysts weren't impressed with his performance, despite a small sample size of snaps. However, head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray never wavered from their evaluation of Waynes.
Entering 2017 training camp, Zimmer said, "When he came in, he had a lot to learn. I probably messed him up a little bit by trying to play him at nickel some. I was giving him a little more to do with some of that. He’s not a real talkative guy, he’s pretty quiet and reserved in the things he’s done."
Waynes didn't play a high volume of snaps until this season and benefited from being thrust into an extended role. He finished the 2017 season by playing during 91.7 percent of Minnesota's regular season defensive snaps. Waynes continued improving and has developed from a quiet, shy, young player, to a confident third year player. Zimmer highlighted Waynes' persona during July's training camp, but made sure everyone understood he could still see his competitive edge.
"He listens, he takes it all in, but he’s not really a guy that’s going to talk a lot of noise out there on the field," Zimmer said. "I know he’s a competitor, I’m not saying he’s not a competitor. He’s just a quiet guy, which is OK."
Over the past few weeks, the emotion and confidence have been flowing from Waynes. He has been making more plays and developing every week as a player. He has been engaged and competitive, showing key traits of a starting NFL cornerback. The young cornerback has developed at a similar trajectory as teammate Xavier Rhodes, who transformed into the NFL's top shutdown cornerback. It took until Rhodes' third season for everyone to see his fundamentals and confidence evolve.
By the midway point of this season, Waynes' tape was starting to show gradual improvement. He was relying less on his speed and tightening up his footwork to stay tight to wide receivers out of their releases. His recognition skills were an issue earlier in his career and he would often process the route concept too late. He would open his hips too soon, allowing defensive backs to gain separation out of the break. The clip below was a play from the Week 2 matchup with Pittsburgh, where Waynes opened his hips and was spun around by the redirection of Martavis Bryant's route. In this game, Waynes had a 49-yard pass interference penalty and gave up two receptions on two targets for 60 yards.
It's like the switch came on for Waynes following the first four games of the season. By the mid-October matchup with Cleveland, Waynes was starting to make more active plays. According to PFF, Waynes allowed 2 of 7 targets to be caught for 22 yards and Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer had a passer rating of 40.2 when targeting Waynes.
It is clear to see Waynes is developing a natural feel for the game as he receives more playing time. During training camp, Waynes was in position, but unable to make plays because of his inconsistent technique and alignments. He also would have occasional reps where he committed a mental error. Now, he's more comfortable and anticipates how wide receivers are going to set up their routes. It's helped him become more skilled when he is asked to press. Overall, he has committed far less blown coverages and is understanding how the tendencies of his opponents shape the way he lines up. Mike Zimmer noted this in Monday's press conference.
"This second half of the year, [Waynes has] played really well," Zimmer said. "There was a lot of times earlier in the year I was helping him a lot and I'm not doing that very much anymore. So he's been out there on his own. I actually think that's part of the reason why the numbers have come down quite a bit because of the way these corners cover in the backend."
It certainly hasn't hurt. The Vikings finished with the second-best pass defense in the league and broke the NFL record for third down conversion percentage (25.2%). The development of Trae Waynes has allowed the coaches to pair his skill-set with reliable veterans like Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes. During the past four games, the Vikings haven't needed to send an ample amount of pressure because their coverage has been sound in the backend. Waynes has covered the deep half of the field well and hasn't been relying on his speed or hands to win. He is using sound footwork to place himself in more advantageous positions.
Many people have been critical of Waynes' inability to sink his hips and felt like he would be limited by this deficiency. However, he has refined his footwork and is developing a feel for when to open his hips, especially when he is in outside leverage. The clip below shows Waynes rotating his hips and using short choppy steps to stay tight to the receiver. He also managed to swivel and create a pass breakup at the final moment. Waynes' positioning on the field, combined with his awareness have allowed him to make more plays on the ball. He is becoming natural as player because his flashes of potential are starting to become more consistent and refined.
Waynes is playing with confidence in many different ways, including in the short and intermediate passing game. In the clip below, he read the eyes of Mitchell Trubisky as he locked into his read. Waynes was perfectly positioned tight to wide receiver Markus Wheaton and made another physical play on the ball. Again, it all comes back to understanding and feeling out the way wide receivers redirect their routes. This started to develop as Waynes lined up correctly and played in extended action for the first time of his three-year career.
At halftime of the Vikings' most recent game with the Bears, Waynes had allowed zero catches on three targets with two passes defensed. By the end of the game he’d allowed just three catches for 52 yards, most of which came late in the game. Waynes finished with an 87.0 Pro Football Focus grade and allowed a 60.4 passer rating. He has been effective in coverage, but he's flashed even more as a tackler in the box. Waynes led all cornerbacks with 15 run stops in 2017, according to PFF. His physicality around the box has helped the Vikings blow up plays running backs have tried to bump outside. There was a myth that Waynes wasn't a sound tackler and didn't play physical at Michigan State -- it's false. He's always had this ability, but he wasn't showing it as much when he was entering the game last year during primary passing downs. Now, he can creep around the box and makes plays like the one below:
The maturation of Trae Waynes comes as a surprise to many. So many people were ready to write off Waynes as he entered his third season. Others were ready to do the same with Mackensie Alexander, who is showing a similar improvement in just his second year. In reality, the experience and uptick in snaps have helped Waynes develop by understanding and recognizing tendencies. He improved his footwork and it has allowed him to overcome the deficiencies in his skill-set. Waynes is finally playing to his strengths, which is the ultimate goal. Now, he doesn't simply need to rely on grabbing or reacting with speed. Mike Zimmer and Jerry Gray have taught him how to play defensive back in a polished manner and it's taken the Vikings' defense to another level as they enter the playoffs.
Credit Waynes for his improvement, but this is just another feather in Mike Zimmer and Jerry Gray's caps.