Vikings’ deep pre-camp preview: Safeties

Harrison Smith returns from a shortened season due to injury, but who will be the safety starting next to him? We look at the salary implications, deep stats, and breakout and sleeper possibilities among the safeties.

The players: Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton, Kurt Coleman, Antone Exum, Andrew Sendejo, Mistral Raymond, Brandan Bishop.

Positional spending: The Vikings rank 22nd in 2014 cap expenditures on safeties, according to overthecap.com, and even that seems like it should be high considering that Smith, their best safety, is still in his rookie contract and scheduled to count $1.95 million on the cap. That’s 20th on the Vikings roster right now, and a very affordable sum for a safety that could be in the discussion as one of the league’s best in the coming year or two.

But after Smith is Sanford, who restructured his contract in March and will be making $250,000 less, down to a cap hit of $2.5 million. Coleman and Sendejo, who could also compete with Sanford for the starting job opposite Smith, will make between $850,000 and $900,000 this year.

Last year: The Vikings’ pass defense left a lot to be desired last year, with near-bottom rankings in yardage (31st), red zone percentage (26th), goal-to-go percentage (26th), third-down percentage (30th), sacks per pass play (24th) and interception rate (29th). Part of that came be blamed on Smith missing nine games in the heart of the season with a severe case of turf toe. Sendejo filled in for him on all of those missed game, as well as starting another two games for Sanford at strong safety before Smith was hurt. Mistral Raymond also got two starts in place of Sanford, further proof of how thin the position had become.

Combined, the safeties accounted for only three interceptions – Smith had two and Sendejo one, indicating a serious lack of playmaking ability overall.

The outlook: Smith is eligible for a contract extension after this year and is back to full health, but the Vikings were relying on just the old crew for support. Sanford, Sendejo and Raymond are all still on the roster, but they will have their contributing roles seriously challenged by Blanton, free-agent addition Coleman and maybe eventually by sixth-round draftee Exum.

Like the cornerback position, depth is building at safety, but there are plenty of players with much left to prove. In other words, there are a lot of options for Mike Zimmer to choose from once he gets into the meat of the preseason.

Deep stats: Prior to getting hurt, Smith played in all but five snaps in the first four games, but he ended up playing in only 45 percent of the defensive snaps while Sanford was in for nearly 68 percent of the snaps and Sendejo for 62 percent.

While Blanton and Smith hovered around neutral in passing differential, a measure of the defense’s success with and without the player on the field, Sanford finished at minus-0.19 yards per pass play and Raymond was last among contributing safeties at minus-0.24.

Sanford and Smith were both better than the Vikings average in supporting the run, but Blanton and Sendejo were below average. Sanford and Blanton were both above average in passing differential on third down, while Smith, Raymond and Sendejo were below average.

Breakout possibility: Vikings fans know the talent and focus of Smith, but if Zimmer can get his defense ready for multiple looks, Smith could be put in the position of playmaker in the run, pass and blitzing aspects of defense. Can he upgrade his reputation throughout the league from “solid” to Pro Bowler?

Sleeper potential: Blanton’s ability to cover and his gradual ascension into relevancy gives him a chance to be a surprise starter coming out of training camp. He received some first-team reps in offseason practices with Sanford out, but that position is wide open heading into training camp.


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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