Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is looking to work wonders in transforming the team’s secondary that was picked on by opposing quarterbacks last season.
The unit finished the 2020 season ranked 23rd by Pro Football Focus (PFF) before the offseason overhaul that included signing free-agent cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Parry Nickerson and safety Xavier Woods.
Woods, who spent the past four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $2.25 million with Minnesota in March. Critiqued for his lack of effort in a Cowboys defense that struggled as a whole in 2020, Woods could take the league by storm this season in his new home, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal asserted this offseason.
“Don’t be surprised if Xavier Woods turns into a surprise Pro Bowl candidate,” Rosenthal said. “Zimmer’s defense is a Candyland for smart safeties and Woods is an underrated player.”
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Woods, a Devoted Study: ‘I’ve Never Seen Him Not Watching Film’
A 2017 sixth-round pick, Woods was a Cowboys darling after carving out a full-time starting role by his sophomore season. He picked off five passes and forced three fumbles in his career as a starter in Dallas.
But among a futile Cowboys’ defense in 2020, Woods struggled, tallying no picks and one pass deflection. Woods came under fire by Dallas loyalists following three straight losses where the Cowboys surrendered an average of 42 points per game.
Effort came into question, and Woods’ honesty was not well-received.
“The effort’s been good. On certain plays, some guys — I mean, me included — there may be a lack. But overall, the effort is there. We’re in the NFL. You don’t expect guys to (go) full speed for 70 plays; that’s not possible,” Woods said. “But we’re going to push as hard as we can. I mean, we know. You don’t expect the back-side corner to go make a play on the opposite side the whole time. That’s just not possible, to be honest.”
While Skip Bayless attempted to bury Woods for the comment, an NFL producer felt the comment was misinterpreted.
Woods’ follow-up to the comment was a humbling response that equated watching film as an opportunity to “take that medicine,” a message he’ll surely need to carry with him entering a secondary room helmed by a no-nonsense coach like Zimmer.
Former Cowboys teammate, linebacker Justin March, vouched for Woods’ work ethic and studious nature at the time of his signing — corroborating Rosenthal’s projection that a heady safety like Woods could thrive in Minnesota.
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Where Woods Fits
While Woods’ regression in 2020 is alarming, he helmed the safety corps for years as a sixth-round pick in a Dallas secondary in dire straights. Woods, operating as the team’s top safety for the past three seasons.
Pioneer Press reporter Chris Tomasson spoke with Dallas radio analyst and former NFL quarterback Babe Laufenberg to get more insight into what Woods offers as a player entering a prove-it year after a slip to ranking 45th at his position group in 2020.
“I don’t think that’s incorrect,” Laufenberg said of Woods slipping. “But the whole defense suffered last year. They were just not that good. I couldn’t tell you anybody that had a year beyond expectations. Their run defense was so bad last year. (Woods) might as well have been a linebacker. A safety obviously has to come up and make some plays occasionally in the run game, but if your safety is sitting there making 10 tackles, you had a bad game defensively, clearly in the run game.”
Woods was second on the team with 72 combined tackles and did not have the same freedom to flourish in coverage he once did. He had no interceptions and just one pass defended after totaling four interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2018 and 2019.
But as a starting-caliber safety, Woods provides plenty of bang for his buck as a versatile piece opposite Harrison Smith. Despite not thriving in coverage in 2020, Woods flashed his prowess of an instinctual pass-rusher, posting an 83.8 PFF pass-rushing grade in 2020.
With two capable safeties who can cover and lay the wood in the box, Zimmer should have a heyday disguising his defense in 2021.
“I like (Woods),” Laufenberg, who has a close relationship with Zimmer from his 1994-2005 stint as a Dallas assistant, said. “Xavier’s a great kid. The game is important to him. I know he works hard. When I look at him, I see a really solid player. He studies. He wants to be good. He wants to be coached.”