by Matt Waldman
Last week I wrote about N.C. State corner David Amerson, who owns the Division 1 record for interceptions in a season. I spent much of the piece contrasting Amerson’s style of play with Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes and Alabama’s Dee Milliner, two corners considered to be in the same tier to begin the year. After examining Amerson’s game, I think he has a chance to become a starting corner for a team that doesn’t need him to play press. Otherwise, free safety might be in his future. I no longer think he’s in the same tier as Rhodes and Milliner.
Rhodes is a promising player because he plays smaller than his size -- this is one of the few instances where this characterization is a compliment. At 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, Rhodes is an inch taller and two pounds lighter than former LSU star and Cardinals rising stud, Patrick Peterson.
Some have compared Rhodes to Peterson because of the similar physical dimensions, as well as Rhodes’ speed, quickness, and the junior’s physical play. I see the basis for the stylistic comparison, but Peterson is a better tackler. When a corner can stone Julio Jones or make it tough on Trent Richardson one–on-one at the goal line like Peterson can, he's in a different class.
What I have seen from Rhodes is the skill to develop into an excellent press corner in addition to a player who already demonstrates skill with trail, off-man, and zone coverage. Milliner is a better player at this stage of the trio’s careers, but Rhodes’ chances of developing into a special cornerback is the highest of the three.
The first thing that separates Rhodes from the lighter Amerson is his skill as a run defender and open-field tackler.
This is a simple cross with Rhodes playing zone. When he reads the break and the quarterback’s eyes, his displays good speed to the ball carrier.
Rhodes finishes the play, knocking the larger receiver backwards and well shy of the first-down marker. There are times where the Seminoles corner will attempt to trip up a defender with a cut, but unlike Amerson, he only tends to do so when he lacks a direct angle to square his shoulder, hit, wrap, and drive.
Diagnosing a good angle to the ball carrier is also an important skill. Amerson has improved in this area as his college career has progressed, but Rhodes is good enough that the Seminoles have no problem using him near the line of scrimmage in the box. He's not limited to just off-coverage concepts, hanging around the flat.
This play is technically a pass: a play-action boot to the tight end on a drag route to the flat. The threat of Clemson running back Andre Ellington is good enough that Rhodes has to play the run to the inside and then recover when he reads the fake. His change of direction is a little smoother than Amerson on these types of plays.
Rhodes is in good position against a receiver with the kind of size advantage that typically leads to a mismatch against a cornerback in the open field. This type of play will often result in a broken tackle and a first down, especially when the receiver has a downfield angle and runs away from the pursuit. Rhodes’ strength to wrap and drag the tight end to the ground well before the first-down marker is a good sign of the corner’s strength and something that adds to the numerous places an NFL defense can put him on the field.
Here’s an even better angle to limit a smash screen on a second-and-6 with 14:07 in the first quarter against Clemson.
Rhodes diagnoses the screen early enough to work inside the lead block.
Rhodes dips his outside shoulder under the lead block, and bends at the knees much like an edge rusher to get around the wide receiver in the flat and earn an open angle to the ball carrier.
Rhodes’ technique to get past the blocker is good enough that he’s now in position to lower the boom on DeAndre Hopkins. In contrast to Amerson, Rhodes prefers to hit and wrap and he’s better at keeping his head up when tackling. This keeps him safe and allows him to generate more power and balance into the hit. Rhodes stuffs Hopkins at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
Although Alabama’s Milliner is a smaller player, I think the Crimson Tide corner is a more physical defender against the run. Rhodes isn’t far behind though, and I think he’s more consistent with his technique, making him a more sound tackler.
Rhodes is an aggressive press corner with quick hands, fluid hips, recovery speed, and the athleticism to finish plays with the ball in the air.
Here is a first-and-10 pass with 12:05 in the first quarter against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are in a 2x2 receiver set and the Seminoles counter by leaving Rhodes on an island with one safety high.
Rhodes strikes early with his inside hand, and he reaches his opponent before the receiver can cross the line of scrimmage. Rhodes’ choice of hand and the angle of his strike funnels the receiver to the outside, where the cornerback can use the sideline as his ally and hopefully pin his opponent to the boundary.
Wake Forest’s quarterback knows he has single coverage and opts to target Rhodes on this sideline fade.
Rhodes maintains his early lead on the receiver and continues to lean on his opponent to pin the quarterback’s target close to the sideline before the ball is even close to arriving. Once he has constricted the receiver’s space, it’s much easier to turn and play the ball.
Leaving nothing to chance, Rhodes goes airborne and extends those long arms of his, knocking the ball away from the area. He did a good job of using his outside arm to gain additional reach, which at the same time positioned Rhodes’ back to the receiver as a natural screen to the pass’ trajectory.
This touchdown reception to Clemson tight end Brandon Ford on a wheel route –- otherwise known at Football Outsiders as the "Schatz Special" -– is a good example of Rhodes reading the field and reacting to the unexpected despite failing to stop the play.
Clemson is in a 20-personnel shotgun set with receivers 1x1, Florida State counters with a single safety deep. Rhodes takes the outside receiver, the strong safety takes the slot man, and the strong side linebacker is supposed to cover Ford, who is on the wing outside left tackle.
After the snap, Rhodes and the safety are clearly playing man coverage, but the linebacker isn’t running with the wing back and his position indicates that he thinks his assignment is to play zone. Once Ford clears that shallow area, it confirms this coverage flaw. Because the strong safety will be covering the slot receiver to the post, the only defender in the left flat is Rhodes.
Once Rhodes gets position on his receiver running the fade, he turns back to look for the ball. He sees his linebacker in a position that doesn’t indicate man coverage. To be fair to the linebacker, the defensive call might have been man outside with zone inside, which would mean the linebacker was anticipating his responsibilities would be one of the two backs releasing from the backfield to his area. In this case, he is in position to cover the running back after the wing back cleared his area.
The reason I don’t think this is the case is that the middle linebacker is in position at the left hash to cover the running back, and he’s actually pointing to the sideline. I’m willing to guess he’s yelling at his teammate to get outside and cover the open wing back. I think Rhodes picks up this signal, which is good communication between the corner and the middle linebacker to adjust.
Rhodes maintains his position on his assignment just long enough to confirm that the quarterback is targeting the wing back, then begins his break back to the target running behind him. The quarterback’s throw is low and this forces Rhodes to leap for the ball, coming within a hand’s length of breaking up the pass.
If Rhodes could have read and broke on the ball two steps earlier, he would have been in position to make the interception and take it up the sideline for a pick-six, a 14-point turnaround, and a soul-crushing play for the opposition. This is the difference between a good reaction that put him within inches of preventing a touchdown and generating a game-changing play on what was a blown coverage by a teammate.
Here’s a third-down play with Rhodes tight to Clemson’s Hopkins on a short slant.
Rhodes’ feet are a good gauge to see that he’s playing inside position on Hopkins and using the sideline as his ally. This stance also gives Rhodes the position to work under Hopkins in trail if the receiver breaks inside.
Hopkins manages to turn Rhodes’ hips outside with his initial release, but the corner’s feet and hips remain balanced. If Rhodes were to get caught leaning too far to one side, he’d have more difficulty changing direction as Hopkins prepares to cross the corner’s face to break on the slant. This isn’t the case.
As Hopkins breaks in the direction opposite Rhodes’ hips, the cornerback once again shows his quick hands and long reach, getting his arm across Hopkins’ chest to deliver a check to the opposite shoulder. This isn’t going to stop the receiver, but one only needs to look at the previous play to understand that football is truly a game of inches. The hand-check gives Rhodes the chance to slow the receiver just enough so he can remain in position to make the play.
Rhodes' feet and hips are in good enough position from the beginning to make a quick turn to adjust to Hopkins’ break, and he’s in position to watch the throw and stick to the receiver’s hip pocket.
As the ball arrives, Hopkins does a good job extending his arms to make the play at the first available window. This is important when a receiver is tightly covered, because they have a greater chance to maintain control of a football with their hands at an early point before contact. It also provides the receiver a better chance to prevent the defender from punching the ball. That Hopkins is willing to disrupt at the first available window is one of the techniques that has won me over as a fan of his potential.
Unfortunately for Hopkins, the throw is placed at his hip and inside –- a bad position for catching a slant. If quarterback Taj Boyd leads Hopkins, Rhodes has little chance to defend this play. Again, it’s a game of inches.
Hopkins gets his hand on the ball, but the placement of the throw to the back hip gives Rhodes the angle to reach around the receiver and deliver a downward chop across the receiver’s arms, jarring the ball loose from Hopkins’ grip before he can secure it. If Boyd leads the receiver, Rhodes would have no angle to reach and chop.
I like what I see when it comes to Rhodes’ footwork, hips, use of his arms, and most of all, how he thinks and reacts on the field. Between Rhodes, Amerson, and Milliner, this cornerback class has a lot to offer the 2013 NFL Draft. I prefer Rhodes to Amerson because he is a safety-sized corner with the physical potential to stick to the super-sized, dynamic receiving options in the NFL. His technique is good enough now that I think he has a better chance to grow into the athleticism that jumps off the screen on every play. I can’t say the same about Amerson.