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Look who can catch now: Vikings' Xavier Rhodes

MINNEAPOLIS -- Former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley put away his tough-love tactics and made like a fan earlier this month. Buckley, now an assistant coach at Mississippi State, went to the Pro Bowl voting page on NFL.com and clicked on the name...

Nov 20, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes (29) looks on following the game against the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 30-24. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes (29) looks on following the game against the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 30-24. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - Former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley put away his tough-love tactics and made like a fan earlier this month.

Buckley, now an assistant coach at Mississippi State, went to the Pro Bowl voting page on NFL.com and clicked on the name of Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

"Tell Xavier I voted for him for the Pro Bowl, and I'm going to be there when he makes it,'' Buckley said of the Jan. 29 game in Orlando, Fla.

Buckley was an assistant at Florida State when Rhodes played there and became his mentor. Drafted by the Vikings in the first round in 2013, Rhodes is in his fourth season with the team, and he continues to talk with Buckley about football and life.

While Buckley is touting Rhodes for the Pro Bowl this season, that hasn't always been the case. Buckley said he provides "tough love" to Rhodes, and often tells him more about what he's doing wrong than right.

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"He doesn't ever want me to be satisfied," Rhodes said. "There's always a 'but' with him. If he tells me I did something good, there's always a 'but' after it."

Buckley's "but" is being used a lot less this season.

Rhodes is having perhaps his best season for a Vikings team ranked third in the NFL in total defense and fourth in scoring defense entering Sunday's game at Jacksonville. He regularly is assigned to cover the opponent's top receiver.

Rhodes has earned plenty of praise in that role. In recent weeks, Pro Bowl receivers Dez Bryant of Dallas and Golden Tate of Detroit have been among those to laud Rhodes' play.

Rhodes was named NFC defensive player of the week for his Nov. 20 showing against Arizona. In the Vikings' 30-24 victory, Rhodes had two interceptions, returning one a franchise-record 100 yards for a touchdown.

"I talked to him after that game," said Buckley, who played for six teams from 1992-2005, including the Green Bay Packers in his first three seasons as a pro, and won a Super Bowl with New England after the 2001 season. "I asked him on the pick for the touchdown: 'Why did you come off your receiver?' He explained to me that the safety was cheating that way and they talked about it before the play.

"He articulated it to me so well what he was thinking that I let the 'but' go on that one. I'd say I'm using a lot less 'buts' now to him."

There were plenty of "buts" last season. Rhodes showed flashes of brilliance but also had his share of struggles.

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In a September 2015 game against the Lions, Rhodes was called for three penalties, totaling 37 yards. In an October 2015 game at Denver, he had another three penalties for 23 yards.

Those mistakes affected his play.

"My confidence level was down," Rhodes said. "But (Vikings cornerback) Terence Newman, he was the guy that was always telling me to stop being so hard on myself. He and the coaches could tell that I wasn't being as aggressive in practice because of the penalties and stuff like that, and they were always in my ear telling me that I had to play my game."

Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray had Rhodes wear boxing gloves during practices. That helped him continue to be aggressive while not grabbing as much.

In 16 games last season, Rhodes was called for 10 penalties for 137 yards. This season, he has been penalized five times for 62 yards in the 10 games he has played.

"He's always been a good athlete," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think his recall is his biggest (improvement). Sometimes a year ago, every day was a new day, and this year he gets back to doing things correctly all the time."

Rhodes had just two interceptions for no return yards in his first three years, prompting Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr to say he "couldn't catch a cold." This season, Rhodes has four picks for 129 yards.

"He's made big strides since last year," said Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. "He's gone from a guy who was like a roller coaster, being up and down, to a guy that's been consistent. And in the NFL, to be a great corner, you've got to be consistent.

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"He's making plays. Not as many penalties. And he's catching the football. You look at his interceptions. His first three years, he hardly had any. Now, he's getting them and making impact plays."

That could translate into a big, multi-year contract for Rhodes, whose 2016 salary has a salary-cap number of $2.484 million. The Vikings have picked up his $8.026 million option for 2017, and he figures to be offered a lucrative extension before next season starts.

Rhodes didn't want to speculate on his chances of re-signing during the offseason, but he did say, "I love playing here."

He admits to some down moments this season but says he now handles those differently.

His roughest outing came in a 22-16 overtime loss to Detroit on Nov. 6. In overtime, Rhodes was assessed a 13-yard pass-interference penalty on third and 10 at the Minnesota 43, then missed a tackle when Tate scored on a 28-yard catch to win the game.

"Guys are going to have tough games sometimes," Rhodes said. "Last year, that probably would have lingered on for me, but not this year. I was over it by the next day."

Rhodes since has had four strong outings, including the impressive one against the Cardinals and in a rematch against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. In Minnesota's last game, a 17-15 loss to Dallas on Dec. 1, he got plenty of attention on national television.

Rhodes was matched against Bryant, one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers. He has earned respect from Bryant, who had four catches for 84 yards while being targeted six times.

"I knew coming into this game, it was going to be a tough match," Bryant said afterward. "I had to be on my A-game, because if I wasn't, he can get the best of you. We had a good battle."

Bryant also expressed his admiration for Rhodes on the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football Postgame Show, calling him a "hell of a corner."

Next up for Rhodes is Sunday's game in Jacksonville, his third game in his home state this season. Jacksonville is a 5{-hour drive from Rhodes' native Miami and 2{ hours from Tallahassee, where he starred at Florida State.

"It's going to be big," Rhodes said. "There's a couple of Florida State dudes there (playing for the Jaguars) and I've got some hometown friends. It's going to be a good game."

There's a chance Rhodes could return to Florida next month for the Pro Bowl. Told that Buckley had voted for him, Rhodes smiled.

"He better vote for me," he said. "Who else is he going to vote for?"

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGSFOOTBALL
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