Vikings Training Camp position battle to watch: Safety


Yesterday was move-in day for the Minnesota Vikings at the campus of Minnesota State University – Mankato, marking the beginning of 2015 Training Camp.

There was a pretty light mood in Mankato yesterday as players arrived for camp. The loud cheers for Adrian Peterson’s arrival and Everson Griffen interrupting a Mike Zimmer press conference are a couple of examples of the lighter mood.

Soon, however, players and coaches alike will get down to business. Coaches will be constantly evaluating the talent to see which players fit, while the players will try to prove their worth to the coaches.

Every year, compelling position battles at training camp become the headline story for NFL teams. For the Vikings in 2015, one of those battles that I know I’ll be keeping a close eye on is the battle for the second starting safety opposite Harrison Smith.

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  • There seems to be a pretty solid consensus that this particular battle is between Robert Blanton and Antone Exum and frankly, I agree. Unless something miraculous happens, one of these guys will be the Vikings’ starting safety next to Harrison Smith come Week 1.

    Robert Blanton wound up as the starting safety last season for the Vikings. While he struggled with the role early in the season, he really picked up his play as the season went along and he became more comfortable. Blanton was solid last season in terms of run defense, filling gaps properly when necessary and he also became adept at taking the proper angle to track down ball carriers. Blanton also showed the ability to be in the right spot in his zone coverage assignments. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Blanton rarely makes the fatal errors that give up big plays.

    If Blanton struggles, it usually is because of a lesser athleticism that his opponent. For example, Blanton is generally weak in man-to-man coverage, especially against a more athletic player. We know how much Zimmer likes to get creative and use blitzes, which means the safeties do spend some time matched up man-to-man with a receiver, running back, or tight end.

    Antone Exum is the other player in the battle for the second starting safety job. Exum is a cornerback-turned-safety, and Exum could very well use some of those cornerbacking skills to his advantage as a safety in the NFL. For example, as mentioned above, Zimmer likes to get creative with blitzing which could result in safeties playing man-to-man defense. In this case, Exum would excel because of his past experience. Also, Exum is freakishly muscular and is a powerful hitter. When he had a zone coverage assignment as a cornerback at Virginia Tech, Exum showed the ability to read the quarterbacks eyes and attack the ball in the air with good range.

    With the good comes the bad, and with Exum there are a couple of things to worry about. First of all, he’s coming off an ACL tear from the 2014 preseason, and he’ll have to make sure that the injury isn’t a problem anymore. While he’s already somewhat weak at changing directions, if it’s too slow that he’s constantly getting beat, then we’ll know that the knee may still be a problem. After all, he’s no Adrian Peterson. (Well, nobody is)

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    A couple of weeks back, Jackson McIntire from The Daily Norseman (and formerly from The Viking Age) broke down Exum’s game with a full analysis on him. You can click on this link for the full read.

    One of the reasons this particular position battle is so fascinating is because of how different some of the opinions are on this. Whether it’s an NFL expert or just an everyday Vikings fan, there isn’t much of a consensus on how good or bad Blanton is. For example: Matt Miller, an NFL writer at Bleacher Report, released his rankings of the top 85 safeties in the NFL and listed Blanton at #7. Seven.

    My short take on Blanton is this. He’s a solid NFL starting safety, and I’d probably rank him somewhere around 20-30 or so in my top 85 safeties. He does a lot of things well, for sure, but his limited athleticism takes away the chances of him getting significantly better.

    At camp, if Blanton can show an improved ability to play man-to-man coverage, then my judgment says to definitely give the job to Blanton based on his experience.

    On the contrary, if Exum proves that he can keep up with the speed and quickness of NFL receivers and running backs while maintaining his natural instincts, I may be inclined to say Exum deserves a shot as the starter.

    Either way, one of these guys is going to join a Vikings defensive starting lineup that’s loaded with a ton of young talent. If one of these guys, whether it’s Blanton or Exum, can perform well this season, it may just be the last step this defense needs to become elite.

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