Minnesota Vikings shouldn’t give up on Antone Exum


Many Minnesota Vikings  fans have already written off defensive back Antone Exum, but the promising third-year safety should not be forgotten so quickly.

Last year at this time, Minnesota Vikings fans were abuzz with excitement about Antone Exum. Entering his second year, everyone expected a significant step forward for the athletic safety.

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Even the straight-shooting head coach Mike Zimmer got in on the hype. Less than a year after publicly questioning “if he could ever figure out what to do,” Zimmer praised Exum’s new approach to the game.

"“He has grown up a lot. Now it seems important to him. It seems like he’s understanding what the coaches want, what we want him to do, what [defensive backs coach] Jerry [Gray] is trying to get done with him,” Zimmer said according to an ESPN article."

For a player whose biggest problems were understanding the scheme and committing to the hard work of the NFL, that was significant praise.

With unquestionable athleticism, an improved comprehension of the game, and a newfound dedication to his craft, Exum appeared well on his way to being a key contributor for years to come.

But now, less than a year after being universally lauded as a rising star, Exum seems to have fallen out of favor. Not only is he no longer talked about as a contender to start, but many are calling him to be cut altogether.

So what changed between then and now?

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

The first strike against Exum came when he didn’t earn the starting job. Despite all the praise about Exum’s improved understanding of the game, the coaching staff still wasn’t ready to fully trust him.

Yet while his failure to earn the starting role was disappointing, it shouldn’t invalidate the progress that he made.

When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Antone Exum in the sixth round, it was with the understanding that he would be a project. Between making the conversion from corner to safety and adjusting to the speed of the NFL, Exum was expected to take at least a year or two to develop.

By all indications, Exum made great strides in his second year, but it wasn’t quite enough to earn the starting job. Even still, that improvement is very promising, and if he can maintain the same approach going into his third season we should see a vastly improved player.

Even more so than his inability to move up the depth chart, however, it was a Week 13 game against the Seahawks that truly turned people against Exum.

He was downright awful.

As the defense got absolutely dismantled during a 38-7 blowout, Exum was consistently a liability in coverage and missed several tackles. On a day when nobody on defense played well, Exum was the worst.

But although that performance left a lastingly terrible impression, it isn’t a fair assessment of Exum’s ability.

Two days after the game, Exum was placed on Injured Reserve amid reports that he played almost the entire game with a broken rib and an injured AC joint in his shoulder. Exum later confirmed that the injuries occurred less than 7 minutes into the game, but that he played through them for the remainder of the contest.

antone exum
Nov 16, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antone Exum (32) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports /

The severity of those injuries goes a long way in explaining Exum’s uncharacteristically bad performance. In his only other start of the season, a Week 12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, it was a completely different story.

According to Pro Football Focus, while Exum allowed four receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks, he allowed only 16 yards on two receptions against the Falcons. On top of his lockdown coverage, Exum added a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery in an all-around stellar performance.

The Falcons game offered a look at Exum’s ability unaffected by injury. As expected, his athleticism stood out on film. In coverage, Exum showed the speed and quickness to handle wide receivers one-on one; against the run, his impressive size and strength allowed him to easily shed blocks and get downhill to make tackles.

Perhaps even more so than his physical skill, however, Exum’s discipline and grasp of the scheme were impressive. Exum was thrust into a number of roles— asked to play in the box, over the slot receiver, in deep coverage, and even as a blitzer. Yet despite the multitude of complex roles and alignments asked of him, Exum held his own.

"“He didn’t seem to be out of position very much, when I look at the pictures and the things we talk about on the sideline,” Zimmer said of Exum in a Star Tribune article. “For the most part, he was in a good position. So that was good to see.”"

For a player once known for his inability to understand the defense, the Atlanta game represented an encouraging step forward.

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While Exum still had momentary lapses in judgement and was a step slow to react on a few plays, the game was very promising overall. For once, the physical and the mental side of the game seemed to come together for him.

That should be the Antone Exum that we see in 2016, not the injured and ineffective player who stepped onto the field against Seattle.

To write Exum off based on his inability to earn a starting job last season or his poor performance against Seattle would be a mistake. Despite the prevailing storylines about him, Exum actually took significant steps forward in 2015 and played very well when healthy.

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If he can approach this season with the same attitude not only should he make the team, Exum should be firmly in the mix to start. While it might be a little later than expected, Exum still has a chance to be the rising star that everyone envisioned for the Minnesota Vikings.