Is Trae Waynes ready to break out for the Minnesota Vikings?

Jan 1, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26) against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Bears 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26) against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Bears 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

After earning a featured role on the Minnesota Vikings defense in his second season, is Trae Waynes ready to live up to his draft stock and break out?

Going into this season, one of the biggest areas of concern for Minnesota Vikings fans was Trae Waynes’ development. After a rookie season in which he rarely saw the field despite the Vikings making him the first defensive back drafted at 11th overall, many were understandably concerned.

Now, heading into his third year, the consternation surrounding Waynes is noticeably quieter. While he didn’t have a transcendent sophomore season, he at least proved that he belongs on an NFL field, earning a rotational role and increasing his playing time from just 18% of the team’s defensive snaps as a rookie to nearly 56% last year.

Still, the question remains: can Trae Waynes break out as a true lockdown corner, living up to his draft stock and establishing himself as more than just a role player?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to gauge the development that Waynes has shown thus far in his young career, determining where he has improved and what areas still need work.

According to some, Waynes’ early development doesn’t provide an inspiring outlook. Pro Football Focus gave Waynes an overall grade of 68.3 this year, which falls into the site’s “below average” category and actually represents a decline from his rookie-year grade of 71.5. If Pro Football Focus’s metric is to be believed, not only is Waynes not improving, he’s getting worse.

As everyone familiar with PFF knows, this is hardly a definitive metric. In their attempts to quantify a player’s performance in a single number, they lose many of the intricate details of that player’s game, and often fail to contextualize their analysis within the player’s scheme. However, PFF’s grades do provide a general indication of a player’s performance, so their perceived lack of development provides an interesting jumping off point for analyzing Trae Waynes.

Contrary to PFF’s analysis, Waynes exhibited improvement in many aspects of his game, improving his situational awareness and ability to tightly cover receivers throughout their routes. While he often struggled to stick with receivers as a rookie, he showed considerable improvement in that area this year. Take this play, for example, in which Waynes lines up against Jordy Nelson at the bottom of the screen.

While not necessarily a perfect repetition, this coverage represents a vast improvement over his rookie year, as he stays right at Nelson’s hip for the duration of the play. After struggling with sudden breaks and exhibiting concerning lateral agility as a rookie, Waynes was able to react more quickly to his receivers’ movements this year, doing a far better job of preventing separation.

With noticeably tighter coverage, it seems surprising that an organization like Pro Football Focus, which is predominantly based on film evaluation, would fail to quantify Waynes’ improvement. Ultimately, the reason comes down to two words: process and outcome.

While Trae Waynes was clearly improved throughout the process of each play, with better awareness prior to the snap and tighter coverage throughout the route, the outcomes of his plays were hardly any better than his rookie year. Even plays that started out picture perfect frequently ended with Waynes on the wrong side of a highlight reel.

While this play was clearly a push-off by Davante Adams, it is a perfect example of a great process followed by a negative outcome. Waynes exhibited textbook coverage throughout the snap, playing airtight defense right up until Adams separates at the last second and makes the catch.

Adams’ push-off and Aaron Rodgers’ impeccable back-shoulder throw made the play difficult to defend, but Waynes’ lack of anticipation is glaring. Waynes remains in position up until the very end, but fails to anticipate the throw, brace himself for contact, and make a play on the ball. Thus, on a play that he initially defended far better than he would have as a rookie, his coverage fails at the last second and the result is a touchdown. Simply put, the outcome doesn’t reflect the improvement that he showed on the rest of the play.

This play, from the Vikings’ first matchup with the Packers, provides another example of Waynes’ lack of anticipation. Although he is close enough in coverage to make a play on the underthrown pass, he fails to read the receiver and turn his head around. Predictably, the outcome is another failure in coverage and a big gain for the offense.

Nelson turning back and breaking down to come back toward the ball should have been a clear indication to Waynes that the ball is incoming, but he failed to read the signs and react in time to prevent the play.

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When Waynes has a clear visual on the ball, his tracking skills are perfectly adequate, as evidenced by his 3 interceptions and 11 passes defensed last year. However, with subpar anticipation and difficulty reading the eyes and body of his receiver, Waynes frequently fails to turn around in time to make a play, if at all.

Waynes still has a number of areas to improve on his game, needing to tighten his coverage on underneath routes, improve his press technique, and continue to refine his footwork in coverage, but this is the area that will make or break him as a player. Despite his noticeable improvement in other facets of his game, Waynes’ difficulty anticipating passes caused the outcomes of his targets to be little better than they were as a rookie.

If Waynes can improve his ability to anticipate passes, working on reading his receivers and getting in position to make a play, his improvement should translate onto the field, and the outcomes should finally reflect the process it took to get there.

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It remains to be seen if Waynes can develop his anticipation and put himself in position to start making plays, but if he can improve that one facet of his game we could see a breakout campaign from the young cornerback in 2017.