Extra Points: Unsung James gets his shot in Minnesota

 

The Sports Network

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's a long way from north Jersey to Minneapolis, but Zygi Wilf made the leap and rookie cornerback Kendall James is planning on following suit.

Wilf, of course, is the billionaire real estate magnate from the Garden State who now owns the Minnesota Vikings. James, on the other hand, is a Jersey native who doesn't have as nearly as many zeros in his bank account but has a chance to make a very good living himself in the Land of 10,000 Lakes after the Vikings selected him in the sixth round of the recent NFL Draft.

Sixth-round picks generally aren't guaranteed much in the NFL, but 5-foot-10, 180-pound James, who starred for coach Kenneth Wiggins at Union County Academy before moving on to the University of Maine and developing into an FCS second- team All-American, landed in a place which desperately needs help at the cornerback position.

Minnesota mistakenly moved on from veteran Antoine Winfield before the 2013 season and the results were nothing short of disastrous. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Winfield was a rock at the Vikings' all-important left cornerback position and an even more critical lynchpin to the club's defensive scheme when he moved inside to play the slot on obvious passing downs.

Josh Robinson, a raw player with elite speed but little feel for coverage, was lost in Minnesota's antiquated cover-2 defensive philosophy as Winfield's replacement, and he and fellow corner Chris Cook, a lengthy player with no discernable ball skills. were arguably the worst starting duo in the entire NFL last year.

Cook is now gone as is former head coach Leslie Frazier and his slavish devotion to the Tampa-2 philosophy, replaced by the ultra-aggressive Mike Zimmer, a defensive-minded head coach with the reputation of getting the most out of his charges.

Despite all the troubles in 2013, the cupboard isn't exactly bare for Zimmer.

Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013 out of Florida State, was the only bright spot at corner for the Vikings last season and has a terrific ceiling as a player. Rhodes is penciled in as a starter opposite free agent pickup Captain Munnerlyn, an undersized but scrappy option expected to take over the Winfield role as the corner who holds his own outside the numbers before moving inside in the nickel where "The Captain" was a difference maker with the Carolina Panthers.

Those two, however, are the lone gimmes at the position for Minnesota, and James will be among a group which includes Robinson as well as veteran free- agent signee Derrick Cox, who flamed out in San Diego last season, holdovers Marcus Sherels, who is really more of a punt returner, and Shaun Prater, along with fellow rookie Jabari Price, who was selected in the seventh round out of North Carolina.

"Competition, it's one word," James said when asked what he can bring to the Vikings. "I'm going to do the best I can to prove to the coaches that they made a good decision on me and for me to play and learn behind good corners and still compete as hard."

Athletically, James is a fit at the NFL level. He has outstanding speed and terrific leaping ability (a 40-yard dash timed at 4.45 seconds and a 39-inch vertical), along with the balance, body control and agility to handle the position.

James also has fluid hips, according to scouts, and the ability to change direction smoothly. He mirrors in man coverage, shows the innate instincts to excel in zone and the closing speed to recover. Although undersized, he has no trouble sticking his nose into things while in run support and carries the swagger every NFL corner needs.

"I can bring toughness to (the Vikings) and help on special teams and I'm just an all-around great cover corner," James said after being drafted. "I think I can bring a lot to help this defense."

With all those positives, you may be thinking what's the catch?

Well, it begins and ends with James' DNA. He's a skinny kid with little functional-football strength, short arms and small hands -- attributes that personnel people crave when looking for cornerbacks.

"James has some talent, but he lacks NFL size and strength," one scout told The Sports Network. "He's a guy who needs to flash on special teams and make it as a practice squad player. If the light goes off, a year in an NFL weight room could really help and he could turn into something a year or two down the line."

Zimmer, a self-described "fixer," figures to help a talent like James reach his potential. The veteran coach has the well-earned reputation of getting the most out of players by teaching technique and harping on all the little things that can turn a lump of clay with some physical skills into an elite NFL contributor.

Zimmer supporters often cite Bengals' star linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent before developing into a second- team All-Pro under Zim's tutelage in Cincinnati, as an example of what the no- nonsense mentor can do.

"I love taking guys with talent and coaching that, because those kind of guys you can take them a lot further," Zimmer said.

James is one of many who will be vying to be the next Burfict-type success story for Zimmer in Minnesota.

"They'll start at the bottom," the Vikings' new coach said when discussing his rookies. "It doesn't mean they'll end there at the bottom. You've got to line them up somewhere, so they'll start down there and we'll go from there."

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