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Entering the 2016 season, there is one glaring hole on the Vikings defense that needs patching. Daniel House explains why solidifying the strong safety spot is critical for the Vikings to take the next step on defense.
Updated: July 12th, 2016 12:35pm
Updated: July 12th, 2016 12:35pm
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
Entering the 2016 season, there is one glaring hole on the Vikings defense that needs patching. It starts at strong safety. Over the last six seasons, the Minnesota defense has lacked a capable option at the position. The Vikings drafted Harrison Smith to solidify the backend, but the spot alongside of him has been ever-changing. Whether it was Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton, or Andrew Sendejo, the Vikings couldn't find an established starter for the future. In free agency, the Vikings added veteran Michael Griffin and they drafted Clemson product Jayron Kearse. Both of those players will provide much-needed competition at this position.
It seems Michael Griffin was brought in to be a stop-gap starter in the event other alternatives don't pan out. In nine seasons with the Titans, Griffin notched 25 total interceptions and is well-known for his coverage skills. Jayron Kearse was selected in the seventh round and will need time to develop into a suitable option. He has a slim and long frame for a safety and it is unclear how that will transfer to the NFL level. Many reports out of OTAs discussed him looking out of place in the backend. Kearse will need to respond to coaching and show flashes in the preseason and training camp. Many fans were surprised to see the Vikings re-sign Andrew Sendejo in free agency. He really struggled playing consistently in 2015. Sendejo was out of place in coverage frequently and had the tendency to simply throw his shoulder towards the player when tackling. When no other alternatives are available, Mike Zimmer has always valued trust at this position. Sendejo understands the system and could fill the role if the coaches aren't confident in any of the other options. Additionally, Sendejo has been a reliable special teams contributor and can provide value in that aspect of the game. Next year, the safety class is deep in the draft and the Vikings could use a pick early to address this need. This probably was running through the head of front office members as they formulated an offseason plan for 2016.
Antone Exum was another player that many within the Vikings organization had high hopes for. In 2014, he was a sixth round draft pick that was seen as a development project for the future. In two seasons, he had trouble fitting within the system and staying on the field. His durability has been a lingering problem. When he was on the field, he was frequently out of position and couldn't handle coverage responsibilities. He might have the physical traits, but he hasn't shown the football intelligence and durability to emerge as a starter.
Finally, Anthony Harris is easily one of the underrated players that could snatch the starting strong safety role. In limited action, Harris showed that he had the football IQ to play in the backend of the defense. In 2015, he entered a starting role in a short week against the Cardinals. He made a very nice play in run support and added a brilliant pass defensed. Harris is easily the most skilled and coachable player at this position. Not to mention, he has the highest potential. Harris will get the chance to show he is worthy of a starting spot in training camp and the preseason.
It all will come down to whether the Vikings value veteran leadership, familiarity in the system, or a young player that could potentially develop into an option for the future. It seems there could be a rotation among Griffin, Sendejo, Kearse, and Harris to see which mix will fit best in the defensive system. Finding the best option will be an experiment that takes place during training camp and the preseason.
The Vikings have built their defense with athletic linebackers, a fierce pass rush, a relentless safety, and an arsenal of physical defensive backs. The one piece they have yet to solidify is the strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith. If the coaches can find a player on the roster that can perform well, it provides so much flexibility to use Harrison Smith in creative ways. He could be used in the box within different stunts that Mike Zimmer deploys against opposing offenses.
Entering training camp, this is the one area of the defense where the door is completely open for roughly five players to battle for the starting nod. As the coaches construct the roster, the other battles will be for depth. Practices in training camp, studying in meetings, and putting together a solid performance in the preseason will decide who comes away with the starting strong safety spot.
When the Vikings take the practice field in Mankato, it seems Andrew Sendejo is the early incumbent, but a young player like Anthony Harris has the potential to land the starting nod before week one action kicks off in Tennessee.