Minnesota Vikings Position Battle: Safety


Don’t let the title fool you, Harrison Smith fans. He is the exception to this position battle, obviously.

But as we head into training camp and the 2015 season, who starts at safety opposite of Smith and who else sees valuable time, is worth watching and paying attention to closely.

The NFL safety has definitely evolved over the years and is now one of the most crucial positions on the defensive side of the ball. All you really have to do is look at some of the most dominant defenses in the league and they all have one thing in common:

Dominant, good in coverage, hard hitting safeties.

Case in point: the Seattle Seahawks with Earl Thomas (III) and Cam Chancellor. Those guys are scary good and they scare the hell out of every offense that has to go up against them week in and week out. They change the way offenses prepare and the way offenses perform.

Reflect on guys like Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott, Rodney Harrison and Troy Polamalu and how much of an impact they had on their respected defenses for so many years. The writing is on the wall: Safety is a top priority and is as important as any other position on every NFL team.

Including our very own Minnesota Vikings.

Luckily for us, we are fortunate enough to have one game changer on our team – a top caliber NFL safety, Harrison Smith.

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But who starts opposite of Harrison “Harry The Hitman” Smith and who makes some big plays at the position is up for debate. Here are my initial reactions on safety and the battles going into this year:

1. Harrison Smith is our starting free safety for the unforeseeable future. Such a revelation here (go ahead and laugh out loud at that sarcasm). Smith is the kind of safety that any NFL team would be more than happy to have. His work ethic, nose for the football and ability to cover and knock the daylights out of people, make him a coveted player in this league.

In his three years since entering the league in 2012, Smith has accumulated 252 tackles (192 solo), four sacks, ten interceptions and three defensive touchdowns. Not a bad resume for the young hard hitter from Notre Dame. Keep on hitting, Harrison.

2. So with Smith as our ultimate warrior at free safety, who is our No. 1 strong safety? It appears as if this position battle is completely up for grabs.

Sep 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Robert Blanton (36) rests along the sidelines in the game with the New England Patriots at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots win 30-7. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

But if I had to pick the front runner to win the job, I would say that all signs point to the man who actually had one hell of a season for the Vikings in 2014: Robert Blanton.

Blanton, another Notre Dame safety (who actually played alongside Smith as a cornerback for the Fighting Irish), led the Vikings in tackles last season with 106 (72 solo) and by far has the most experience among his competitors in this battle.

Despite the success that Blanton had in 2014, I still am unsure if he is the real deal. Blanton can be streaky at times, sometimes getting lost in coverage, resulting in receivers getting behind him and making big plays down the field. I’d like to think that with another year under Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme that Blanton can become more acclimated to his role as the strong safety within this system. As expected, only time will tell.

So who will be pushing Blanton and competing for that other starting safety spot with him?

3. Antone Exum and Andrew Sendejo. Say both of those names and the response is similar for both: huh? And that is in no way a diss to either of these guys, but let’s be honest, both of them are rather unknown and unproven in what they can do at the NFL level – especially Exum.

Let’s start with Sendejo, though.

Sandejo is definitely no stranger to the NFL game. He has had spurts of playing time for the Vikings on both special teams and as a starter for the past couple of seasons, sometimes showing starting caliber material. Other times not so much. There is definitely one thing about Sandejo’s game that you can’t ignore, though, and that’s his willingness to hit people. And to hit them hard. His game clearly needs some fine tuning if he wants to beat out Blanton and find himself as the starting safety opposite of Smith, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet.

Now what about Antone Exum?

Dec 21, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antone Exum (left) celebrates his fumbles recovery with Minnesota Vikings running back Joe Banyard (right) during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 37-35. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There’s really not a lot to go off of for this guy. A special teams player in 2014 and a converted safety from his college days as a cornerback for Virginia Tech, we really have no idea what Exum can do at the NFL level. What we do know though is that he is definitely in the mix to start at safety.

He has the makeup of an NFL safety (6’0″, 200 lbs) and his days as a corner in college definitely do not hurt his cause. We know that Mike Zimmer likes safeties who have a knack for the football, so Exum could be the dark horse in this battle. I personally think Exum could see quite a bit of time this year – now whether that be in special coverage situations or as the starter opposite of Smith, that is still to be determined.

Anyone else who could find their way into the mix?

4. Undrafted free agent, Anthony Harris, is really the only other player who possibly could in my opinion. The undrafted rookie out of Virginia was predicted to be taken in the third round of this year’s draft (by draft analyst Todd McShay) but found himself without a team upon the draft’s completion. Harris definitely has a knack for the football as he led the nation (as a deep safety) in 2013 with eight interceptions. The Vikings defense needs interceptions, so grabbing a guy like Harris who has a history of picking off quarterbacks is more than warranted. Whether Harris can make his way into this competition is probably less of a question than whether or not he cracks the roster. Either way it will be fun to see if the youngster can make a name for himself in training camp and the preseason.

5. Projected lineup and depth chart at safety (in the following order)?

  • Harrison Smith, starter, free safety
  • Robert Blanton, starter (for now), strong safety
  • Antone Exum, breathing down Blanton’s neck (pending a great training camp, obviously), used in special coverage situations to begin the season
  • Andrew Sendejo, used when needed on defense, special teams player
  • Anthony Harris, possible camp surprise, if on the roster – special teams player

6. Overall thoughts on this group of safeties for 2015?

Heading into training camp and the 2015 season has me really excited about the Vikings defense as a whole. That same feeling expands to our safeties. Harrison Smith is a good enough reason to feel that way, but I am confident enough in Blanton, Sendejo or Exum to be able to solidify that part of our defense.

Regardless of who wins the other starting safety spot, I like that Zimmer is keeping this competition completely open despite Blanton’s success last year. We all know that competition brings out the best in players, so I fully expect one hell of a battle here. I hope each guy is given an opportunity to start a game in the preseason and hopefully those games combined with training camp in Mankato leads us to the right guy for Week 1 at San Francisco.

Let the battle begin and may the hardest hitting man be left standing.

Next: Mike Zimmer: Chapter Two

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