Friday, July 24, 2015

Training Camp Position Preview: Safeties

Image Courtesy of Rant Sports

Can Robert Blanton be challenged for the starting strong safety spot? Daniel House reviews the potential candidates and previews the safeties on the roster. 

Updated: July 24th, 2015 12:06pm

By: Daniel House

The safety position is anchored by one of the best defensive players in all of football. Harrison Smith is the type of playmaker and leader a team needs in the secondary. The real issue over the last two years has been the inconstancy alongside Smith. Last season, Robert Blanton played strong safety, but didn't quite play up to the expectation levels of this system. On paper, his statistics might not look poor, but his fit in the scheme sometimes didn't mesh. Antone Exum Jr. and Andrew Sendejo could challenge him for the starting nod, but it is pretty obvious Blanton is the incumbent entering training camp. Nonetheless, the depth chart will be shifting throughout the preseason and training camp to see other players fit with the first-team defense. Safety is another positional group that will have a battle for roster spots. Anthony Harris will be an emerging undrafted rookie and he might provide enough talent to challenge for a slot on the team. In the end, preseason performance and scheme fit will ultimately decide who lands the starting safety spot. However, there is more talent than in years past at the safety position and it will make the decision even more difficult.

Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith is the most integral part of the Vikings secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, he was graded as the second-best safety in the league. Not only was he making an impact in the passing game, but he was really flashing when he was in the box as a run defender. Among all NFL safeties, he received PFF's second highest grade against the run. His fearless presence and leadership in the backside of the defense has made him one of the most valuable players on the Vikings' roster. In 2014, he accumulated five interceptions, including an 81-yard touchdown in week one against the Rams. In many contests, his playmaking ability shifted the tide in favor of the Vikings. This year, the biggest question mark will be who is playing alongside Smith when the Vikings open the regular season in San Francisco.

Robert Blanton

Many believe the jury is still out on Robert Blanton playing strong safety for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. The door is certainly open for competition, but Blanton is the incumbent entering training camp. As a strong safety, run defense might be valued more than pass coverage, but there is definitely a fine line. According to Pro Football Focus, Blanton was ranked +0.9 in coverage last season. He made some mistakes, but he was average in that avenue. Where he really made his mark was in the run game. Pro Football Focus graded Blanton's run defense in 2014 a +6.8, the 4th highest run defense grade of any safety in the NFL. Not to mention, he was tied for 10th fewest missed tackles. Nonetheless, if a player like Antone Exum Jr. takes the step, I don't think Blanton is a lock to start at strong safety this season.

Antone Exum Jr.

Antone Exum Jr. was very raw when he was practicing in training camp last season. With a year in the system and familiarity of what to expect, the coaches hope he can take the next step. Exum Jr. is a strong-bodied player who isn't afraid to lay a spine tingling hit. He primarily played on special teams last season and developed into a formidable blocker on the return teams. Exum Jr. could compete for the starting safety job if he puts together a solid performance in training camp and the preseason. He can provide the run support skills, but will he be prepared to take the next step in coverage? Like I said earlier, run defense is most important, but pass coverage is just as critical in some scenarios. In fact, it can be the difference between a win and loss. Last year, he seemed to be facing a learning curve and it will be interesting to see where he is at in 2015.

Andrew Sendejo 

After injuries struck the backend of the Vikings defense, Andrew Sendejo saw extended action over the final four games of the year. He has always flashed in both aspects of his game and has contributed on special teams in his four seasons with the Vikings. Last year, Sendejo missed most of training camp with a back injury and that certainly didn't help him get up to speed in the system. However, his instincts, smarts, and physical traits have helped him continually latch onto a roster spot. Not to mention, his special teams contributions have been a huge asset to the team in the past. He can not only help on defense, but can be valuable on the coverage and return teams. With the experience he gained last year, and a full training camp, he is another player that could challenge for the starting strong safety spot.

Anthony Harris

Anthony Harris is another intriguing prospect from the Vikings' undrafted rookie list. Harris was a third round talent that fell down draft boards because of injury concerns. He might not have ideal size (6'1" 193 pounds) to play safety, but he definitely has the instincts and playmaking ability. Harris had ten interceptions over the last two seasons at Virginia, including a nation-high eight at deep safety in 2013. He played more at strong safety last year and was considered a very vocal leader to younger players at Virginia. Harris is very instinctive on tape and from all accounts is very coachable. The Vikings had him in for a top-30 visit and were able to land him as an undrafted rookie. With some coaching and experience at training camp, don't be surprised if Harris makes a push to land a roster spot.

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