Vikings position analysis: Safeties

A sore spot for years, Vikings safeties had a pretty good year in 2014, led by Harrison Smith, who enters 2015 in a contract year. We take a player-by-player look at the Vikings’ safeties.

Robert Blanton
Blanton finished his third year in the NFL after the Vikings selected him out of Notre Dame in the fifth-round of the 2012 draft. A decent preseason earned him the job as the starting safety opposite Harrison Smith. He held that spot until injuries intervened.

He started in the first 13 games of the season, but was then inactive for one game due to an injury. In Week 16 he found himself playing, but he did not start and it was the same for the final game of the season.

Throughout the 2014 season Blanton was solid defending against the run, and Pro Football Focus even had him rated as the second-best safety in run stop percentage. That is where they only take into account running plays and exclude passing plays. Blanton played 380 snaps against the run, recording 48 tackles, 11 assists and three missed tackles.

It was is pass coverage that hurt him during the course of the season, when you could see him making the wrong read from time to time. Even so, he still ended the season with an 8.8 rating by PFF, and was ranked as the No. 17 safety in the NFL.

It is unclear what Blanton’s role will be on the Vikings next year. He is still a young player, but he did a decent job for the Vikings during his first full year as a starter. Still, many people view safety as a need for the Vikings as the draft and free agency draw nearer.

Ahmad Dixon
Dixon just finished his rookie season after being bounced around the league a couple times. He started his NFL career being drafted out of Baylor in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys. He was then added to the Vikings’ practice squad at the beginning of September and remained there until the Chicago Bears claimed him. He was later brought back to the Vikings’ practice squad and eventually signed to their active roster.

The fact that the Vikings kept bringing him back is evidence that they have interest in him as a player, although it is not yet clear what his role with the team will be moving forward.

Antone Exum Jr.
Exum finished his rookie year in the NFL after the Vikings drafted him out of Virginia Tech in the sixth round. He was the highest drafted of the three defensive backs the Vikings drafted in 2014, and was primarily a special teams contributor.

Even though a majority of his time was spent on special teams, he was able to get on the field as a defender toward the end of the season due to injuries. He played eight defensive snaps Week 15 against the Detroit Lions and recorded two tackles.

On special teams Exum recorded seven tackles and recovered a fumble.

Exum still has plenty to prove. Next season he will likely remain a special teams contributor, and if worse comes to worse he could find himself on the practice squad.

Andrew Sendejo
Sendejo finished his fourth year in the NFL. After his college days at Rice, Sendejo spent time with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League in 2010. He was then signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad later that year, and was later promoted to their active roster. He was, however, released by the Cowboys before the start of the 2011 season.

The New York Jets then picked him up, but they waived him later in the 2011 season, which is when he was picked up by the Vikings and placed on their active roster.

After starting a majority of the 2013 season, Sendejo became the third safety on the depth chart in 2014 and only got to play on defense in a handful of games. In the first 14 weeks of the season he totaled 15 defensive snaps, but that all changed when Blanton went down with an injury at the end of the year.

It was then Sendejo’s responsibility to start and he played in 126 defensive snaps in the final three games on the season. During his time on defense he amassed 20 tackles and a forced fumble.

Where Sendejo really proved his worth, though, was as a special teams contributor. He led all special teamers with 13 tackles and also had a 48-yard fake punt run in Week 11 against the Bears. Moving forward Sendejo will likely remain a special teams contributor for the Vikings, but there is a chance that he could push for a starting spot.

Harrison Smith
Smith just finished his third year in the NFL after the Vikings traded back into the first round and drafted him out of Notre Dame in 2012. Smith has been a starter in the Vikings’ secondary since he was drafted, and one of the most consistent players on the defense.

This past season Smith was given a 17.9 grade by PFF, which made him the second-highest rated safety in the NFL – Eric Weddle from San Diego was rated best. His 1,097 snaps played were tied for the eighth-most among safeties in 2014.

Over the course of the season Smith recorded a team-high 120 tackles, three sacks and five interceptions. Those five interceptions were tied for third-most in the NFL, and his 150 interception return yards were second in the NFL.

Smith will be in a contract year in 2015, and after playing consistently throughout his career – not including when he was injured – he will likely be looking for top dollar for the safety position. That is likely to happen – unless he greatly underperforms next year – as he seems to be the perfect type of player for head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense. If they can’t reach a long-term extension, the Vikings could also exercise a fifth-year option in his contract.

Safety Overview
The 2014 season was not a bad one by any means for the Vikings’ safeties. Smith led the way with an outstanding season, and Blanton was solid against the run – but could still use some work defending the pass. And then there is Sendejo, who was one of the best special teams performers on the team. Every safety to play on the defensive side of the ball had a positive rating by PFF – including Exum for his eight plays.

There has been a lot of speculation about the Vikings getting another safety to complement Smith during this offseason, whether it is through the draft or free agency. The decision will ultimately come down to whether or not Zimmer is happy with what he has in Blanton or Sendejo. Both players are still young and not done developing.

No matter what the Vikings choose to do, though, the 2015 season should be a better one for the safety position than 2014 – barring any injuries. Smith will be back and looking to have a good season in a contract year, and the safety opposite him should be improved, whether that be Blanton or Sendejo with another year of experience under their belts or a new safety the coaches believe is a step up from those two.

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