With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#18: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
We continue this year's series with Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who's coming into the NFL at the perfect time for his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical style of play. A wide receiver, running back, and defensive back at Miami Norland High, Rhodes chose Florida State over a number of big schools and started the adjustment to the cornerback position -- a process that was stopped by a hand injury in his freshman year after he appeared in to games on special teams. That led to a medical redshirt, and some time to get a better handle on the nuances of the cornerback position. In 2010, he came back to start all 14 games, and logged four interceptions with 16 passes defensed. He managed just four picks and 15 passes defensed total in his final two collegiate seasons, but as head coach Jimbo Fisher said, Rhodes' statistical decline was as much about opponents realizing that he wasn't a smart target.
"After one good year, when you get numbers, you usually don't get them after that, because they quit throwing at you," Fisher said of Rhodes. "It comes back to the respect and appreciation of how he plays the game and how good of a player he is. To me, when a corner doesn't have big numbers, it's because of the respect other teams have for you."
Rhodes' ascent coincides with the recent success seen by teams like the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks when using bigger, more physical corners and "2-man" coverage (press corners with safeties over the top). It's led other teams to look hard for cornerbacks who can come up to the line and establish physical dominance, while running with the fastest vertical targets. And there's no question that Rhodes possesses that combination of attributes more completely than any other corner in this draft class.
Pros: Big, physical player who uses his size as an advantage -- both in coverage and in tackling ability. At times, will shed blocks with the mentality of a small linebacker -- doesn't fear contact at all. Outstanding player at the line -- in press coverage, and when asked to play a force defender role against the run. Physical press corner who can trail deep sideline routes with elite speed. As a boundary corner, does a great job of establishing inside position and using his hands to keep track of his receiver while he keeps his eye on the ball. Adapts to less-than-optimal hip turn with good understanding of angles -- will box his receivers out well.
Rhodes is especially practiced at jamming his receivers at the line, upsetting the timing of their routes, and forcing them to make different plans on the fly. Establishes a good hand-stab out of press and keeps the pressure on all the way. Very aware player on longer routes -- will establish a presence in front of the ball and make it very tough for his target. Tall defender with an excellent ability to out-jump the receivers he's covering -- could be a big asset in the NFL against receivers like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Brandon Marshall. Good wrap tackler for the most part -- will target his man aggressively but stay on point. Doesn't dive and miss as much as his sometimes reckless style of play would make you think.
Cons: The downside to Rhodes' physicality is the extent to which he'll slip on the border of playing dangerously -- will rack up contact calls and personal fouls with his current style of play in the NFL. Tends to get handsy beyond the allowed five-yard area. Doesn't possess an optimal backpedal or hip turn, which leaves him a bit lost in off-coverage against better and faster receivers -- tends to recover too much in those situations. Tends to run around too much when going in reverse; he has trouble staying in a straight line. Will get logey when stepping in small spaces and he'll lose quicker receivers in zone or off-man drops. Will lose receivers on quick-cutting routes, though at his size, that's a reasonably acceptable and fixable issue. Not a real route-jumper per se -- tends to guess and lunge too often.
Conclusion: There are teams near the top of this draft class with a desire for more physical pass defenders and a real need for help at the cornerback position, and it's why I think Rhodes just might go before Dee Milliner in the draft if things line up right. He's got obvious technique issues, and he needs to get his game a bit more under control, but in the right scheme, he could very well be a real game-changer. All he needs is a team that understands his potentially huge value, and a coaching staff that will smooth out a few of the rough edges. Rhodes could (and should) be used right away as an "enforcer" at the line with the ability to affect route after route with his physical presence -- leading some to compare him to another Florida State cornerback who made a fairly immediate impact in the pros.