When first-round draft pick Harrison Smith was ejected from Sunday's game for physical contact with an official, it brought the Minnesota Vikings one step closer to a plan that fans seem to have become enamored with in recent years.
Smith's ejection forced fifth-round draft pick Robert Blanton into defensive duty for the first time in the regular season. Next to him was veteran Jamarca Sanford, a starter from last year who entered the 2012 season as a backup.
"You've got to come in with your experience and help him out," Sanford said of Blanton's appearance. "He came in today and he knew what he was doing. He did a good job preparing during the week. They brought us in (during practice) and let the backups get at least a couple reps and be familiar with it."
Blanton had no obvious errors in his first official NFL defensive duty, but a team more offensively competent than the Tennessee Titans may have tried to expose his inexperience. But the fact is the Vikings didn't have many other options. Mistral Raymond is still on the road to recovery from an ankle injury that is expected to keep him out for at least a couple more weeks, and the other safety on the roster, Andrew Sendejo, was inactive because of his own ankle injury.
So what would have happened if either Blanton or Sanford had been injured?
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said they had a plan, but beyond saying that a cornerback would have played safety, he didn't want to detail it.
So, who would have shifted from cornerback to safety?
"That's the question of the day," Sanford said. "I think Antoine Winfield would have had to play safety a little bit back there because a couple weeks ago they let him get in for a couple plays at safety (in practice), so Antoine would have been the next guy up."
Winfield has been the subject of fan speculation for such a move for quite some time. In some respects it might make sense. He is in his 14th year and is one of the best pound-for-pound tacklers in the league.
The problem? There doesn't seem to be a high level of interest from Winfield in the move and he is still needed at cornerback. He has said in the past that he heard the fan chatter about the possibility, but he is still one of the most heavily used cornerbacks on the team and still a starter at that position.
The Vikings are just beginning to implement a plan to try to reduce Winfield's snaps at cornerback and eventually rookie Josh Robinson is expected to step into a full-time starting role. On Sunday, he started in place of Winfield, but the 14-year veteran still played more than the 21-year-old rookie.
"One of the things we want to be able to do with Antoine and some of our other players is be able to take some snaps off them at this point in the season, and hopefully when we get to November, December, we still have a fresh Antoine Winfield and a guy who can really continue to play at a high level for us," Frazier said. "It is his 14th season in the league so whenever we can take some snaps off him and get Josh a chance to continue to develop, we're going to try to do that."
As for safety, Smith won't be suspended, the league confirmed, and Sendejo is expected back this week, meaning any talk of Winfield at safety is just talk.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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