Crocker served a purpose for Smith, Vikings

Harrison Smith wasn’t too surprised by the release of Chris Crocker, but he learned plenty from the veteran safety during the month of August. Smith talked about the departure of Crocker, what he learned and moving on with a less experienced safety next to him.

Mike Zimmer went for potential and youth over savvy veteran experience at safety.

When the roster cuts were announced Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings head coach showed that prior relationships were no guarantee of future employment.

Chris Crocker was signed in the week leading up to the Vikings’ preseason opener after a rash of injuries at safety to start training camp. Crocker didn’t play in the preseason opener, but he was the starter at strong safety for the next two games. Then, like many experienced veterans, he didn’t play in the preseason finale. Two days later, the Vikings released him.

Although Crocker won’t be part of the lineup in the regular-season opener Sunday in St. Louis, he served a valuable role in his month in Minnesota.

“He was like having a coach in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the field,” said starting free safety Harrison Smith. “In between plays he would say, ‘Harry, watch out for this coming up here’ and he was right most of the time. Even though he was only here for a little bit, I learned a ton from that guy. He’s not only a great player, but he’s a great coach, even though that’s not his title.”

The starting strong safety next to Smith won’t be able to offer that kind of veteran savvy, no matter who it is. In addition to releasing Crocker, the Vikings parted ways with four-year NFL veteran Kurt Coleman, who was signed in free agency, and placed Jamarca Sanford, who was with the Vikings since 2009, on injured reserve.

Although Crocker spent seven years with Zimmer in Cincinnati, as well as a season with him in Atlanta, Zimmer said he was upfront with Crocker all along about his potential for a 12th NFL season.

“Chris and I had talked a long, long time ago about his situation and where it was. Nothing is set in gold,” Zimmer said. “I’ve kind of told him the situation all along. … The safety position, we’ve felt like we had a lot of the same guys. Special teams had a lot of influence on it.”

Crocker’s departure leaves the Vikings with Smith, third-year pro Robert Blanton, fourth-year pro Andrew Sendejo, and rookie Antone Exum at the position.

They have a total of 13 NFL starts between the three battling for the strong safety spot. Crocker had 110 NFL starts in his career.

“Whoever is going to be back there with me is going to be awesome. Just having that time with Crocker was good,” Smith said. “I kind of had Antoine (Winfield) when I was a rookie just to see how a pro prepares, but I never really had a safety to look at who was an old, old guy – I call him an old man everyday – but he just kind of showed me again what it’s like to be a professional and to really understand the game and approach it not only from a physical level, but from a mental level.”

Although Zimmer and Smith weren’t giving away who the starter would be at strong safety, Blanton has been listed as the starter on the depth chart since the start of training camp.

“He’s a smart guy. Sometimes when you make the transition from corner to safety it takes those guys awhile, but he’s a smart guy and does that,” Zimmer said of Blanton. “You have a little bit more athletic ability usually when you bring a corner in there. It was unfortunate he got hurt early and we didn’t have a chance to see him a little bit more.”

Blanton and Sendejo both missed games in the preseason and practice time in training camp because of injuries.

Whoever is next to him, Smith said he is confident in his ability.

“I don’t really even think of it as uncertainty. I know all of the guys that could end up playing can play and be successful and make a lot of plays,” he said. “To me, I’m good to go and it doesn’t matter. I know every guy that’s on the roster can go and do the job. We all communicate well with one another. As long as we do that, we’ll do fine.”

Smith said the release of Crocker and Coleman and placing of Sanford on injured reserve didn’t come as a complete surprise because that’s the business of the NFL and every player knows it.

The versatility of Blanton and Exum, who each played some cornerback in college, gives the Vikings more coverage flexibility, and that’s part of the success of Zimmer’s defenses in the past. Smith has seen some of that already in the preseason and is looking forward to putting it all into action.

“It’s going to be fun for us,” he said. “(Safeties) get to do pretty much everything, all levels of the defense – down into the line, dropping out like a linebacker playing deep, covering man to man. So we’ll get to do pretty much everything.”

Who gets to do that next to Smith remains the big question.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

Viking Update Top Stories