Sunday, July 13, 2014

Training Camp Position Preview: Safety

Daniel House analyzes the safety position and explains who could emerge alongside Harrison Smith in the Vikings defensive scheme. 

Updated: July 13h, 2014 9:39pm

By: Daniel House

The Vikings safety position has been in flux for the last five seasons. The Vikings drafted Harrison Smith and it relieved the pressure at this group. Now, the team is looking for a player to emerge alongside him at safety. Mike Zimmer heavily rotates the backend of the defense and could do the same with the Vikings. During the second half of last season, the Bengals used a three safety rotation under Zimmer. Chris Crocker, who signed as a cornerback, shifted over to safety. It is still in question whether Zimmer will implement that philosophy with the Vikings given the amount of injuries the Bengals had on defense at the time. It could be a reality with the instability at this position group. Who could be rotating alongside Harrison Smith? Let's take a look.

Harrison Smith: Where would the Minnesota Vikings be without Harrison Smith? Vikings fans experienced that feeling for eight games, after Smith went down injured at the midway point of the 2013 season. Without the presence of Smith, the Vikings backend struggled to compete and that was to be expected. The worry this season won't come with Smith's position, but more when you evaluate who can emerge alongside the former Notre Dame standout. The key will be whether Smith can endure a full 16-game schedule. His fearless hard-hitting and playmaking abilities are what causes a higher probability for injury, but that is part of the game.

Jamarca Sanford: Next to Smith for much of the past two seasons has been Jamarca Sanford. Sanford is a big hitter and specializes in run defense, but he's also come up with big plays, tallying two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery last season. He is more of liability in pass coverage and has established himself with the nickname 'Stone hands' Sanford during his time with the Vikings. He has failed to close on several interceptions and his coverage skills have left little to be desired. Sanford will need to show he can play well on special teams if he wants to compete with others at this position.

Kurt Coleman: Coleman was signed by the Vikings this off-season to compete for a spot next to Harrison Smith. Coleman, a former starter for the Philadelphia Eagles, has a chance to contribute on special teams and possibly earn a starting spot if he beats out Sanford and the other candidates. He rated very high as a special teams contributor, according to Pro Football Focus. As for play as a starting safety, that is an entirely different story. In 2011, he earned the Eagle's starting safety spot outright, but didn’t play very well, per Pro Football Focus. In pass coverage, he graded out with a -3.4 grade. In 2012, he looked worse both in coverage and run defense, where he only graded out positively twice in 14 games. He ranked 85th out of 88 safeties. In 2013, he lost his starting spot very quickly to Patrick Chung. In the last four years, he’s ranked 119th out of 152 safeties (with over 500 snaps) in adjusted yards per target given up and achieved a PFF grade per snap of 128th in the same grouping. With a heavy rotation and work on the backside of the defense with Mike Zimmer, you have to like the tenacity and special teams abilities Kurt Coleman can bring to the table for the Vikings.

Mistral Raymond: Raymond is entering his fifth season with the Vikings organization. He has saw extended time rotating with Jamarca Sanford at safety, but during his tenure, he hasn't turned heads. Raymond played the majority of his college career at cornerback and the Vikings decided they would draft him as a safety. Raymond has failed to stay healthy and his contributions on special teams haven't been very impressive. In order to win a job with this team, special teams is going to be a critical role at any position. Raymond just doesn't provide special teams assets or any type of superior ability at the safety position. He is just an average player at this position.

Andrew Sendejo: Sendejo is a quality special teams player that saw extended action at safety, when injuries plagued the group in 2013. He started ten games and impressed the coaching staff enough to be awarded a contract extension in the middle of the season. Sendejo is well-known for his strong work ethic and his fearless hitting abilities in the backend. I would really like to see Sendejo receive reps next to Harrison Smith during training camp. Both of these players have tenacious personalities and could be a solid duo at the safety position. Irregardless, Sendejo is a solid special teams player that will make this roster without any questions.

Robert Blanton: Blanton filled in nicely at the end of the 2013 season, when injuries plagued the Vikings cornerbacks. He made the position switch from safety, to cornerback and played at an impressive level. He saw time in nickel packages and defensed several passes in the process. This season, he is listed as a safety and it appears he will play that position heavily during the 2014 season. During the mini-camp portion which was open to reporters, Blanton, who played with Harrison Smith at Notre Dame, saw starting reps. It will be interesting to see if he can develop as a safety and flourish enough to separate himself from Sendejo, Coleman, Sanford, and Antone Exum.

Antone Exum: Exum was drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round of this year's draft. He primarily played cornerback, but the Vikings are indicating he will be playing safety for them this season. Exum is a big-bodied player that has precise ball skills and closing ability. He needs work with technique and durability has been a big question mark during his college career. Exum battled an ACL tear, but recovered and played down the stretch for Virginia Tech last year. The coaching staff likes the athletic ability Exum provides and feel he could push for a starting spot. It will all come down to whether he can develop from a technique standpoint.

Brandan Bishop: Bishop spent time with the Vikings on the practice squad last year and flashed during training camp. He is one player that I will be monitoring closely during training camp this year. Bishop has superior instincts and pass coverage abilities at the safety position. He needs work in run support, but he has some developmental tools. Bishop has good technique, but he primarily will need to show he can contribute on special teams, if he wants to make a push for the 53-man roster.

The Vikings will likely keep five safeties on the roster, which means each and every rep will determine who wins the spots. Harrison Smith is the only lock at this position group and training camp will decide who has the edge for the final four spots. In my opinion, Coleman, Sendejo, Exum, and Blanton are the players I see winning the roles. Training camp will be telling, but the safety position will see plenty of rotation and will be shaped by the time August rolls around.

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