Exum, Harris could compete at safety

With an apparent opening at safety, second-year player Antone Exum and rookie Anthony Harris could be contenders if Rick Spielman’s assessments prove prophetic.

Harrison Smith proved to be one of the top performers on the Minnesota Vikings defense in 2014. Because of his performance on the field, the Vikings decided to pick up his fifth-year option.

The safety spot opposite him, however, is still up for grabs. Last year Robert Blanton won the starting job in the offseason but he often struggled during the regular season. Toward the end of the regular season he suffered an injury and Andrew Sendejo took over the starting job.

Sendejo then played well on occasions, but the question on whether he is a starting-caliber player in the NFL is still up in the air. General Manager Rick Spielman said they know what they have in both Blanton and Sendejo, but fans could be seeing a change in safeties for the 2015 season.

One player that could rise up the ranks is Antone Exum Jr. The Vikings selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. He had the chance to play on the defensive side of the ball last year when both Blanton and Sendejo were injured, but his primary role was as a special teams player.

Spielman has already brought up Exum as a player to watch this offseason and expressed the team’s excitement about him. Both of those things could be signs pointing to him earning a starting spot for the 2015 season.

“Definitely Exum from last year, who made the conversion from corner to safety, we’re every excited also about the progress he has made,” Spielman said. “ ... But, you know, Exum is definitely a guy we’re going to be keeping a close eye on and see how well he comes along from where he was last year, but a very talented athlete.”

Another player the Vikings seem to be pretty high on is former Virginia safety Anthony Harris. They signed Harris as an undrafted free agent and are surprised that he didn’t get drafted, although Spielman gave an explanation to why Harris went undrafted.

“I think he had – he played with a knocked down shoulder all year and played through it,” Spielman said. “So he was not able to work out. So just because he is still going through rehab right now, so sometimes that causes guys to slide. But that’s why we brought him in on the top-30 as well.”

Harris’ injury and rehab could put him a little behind in terms of competing for the job, but once he is healthy his name could very well be in the mix. The fact that he was able to play through his injury over the course of the season shows his toughness and the fact that the Vikings invited him to their top-30 visit shows the team’s interest in him.

Harris is 183 pounds, which is a little on the smaller side for a strong safety. But during his three-year career at Virginia he recorded 289 tackles. That again shows his toughness and his willingness to step up in the box and be physical. Along with the tackles, he also recorded 30 passes defensed, an indication of his potential to contribute in pass coverage.

Head coach Mike Zimmer loves to work with versatile players and that is exactly what Harris appears to be. Smith is also the same type of player who can step up in the box and drop back into coverage. The idea of having two safeties that can play all over on the field has to excite Zimmer.

The starting safety position opposite Smith is a wide-open race at this point in time. The top prospects for this position are Blanton, Sendejo, Exum and Harris. Free-agent acquisition Taylor Mays could also get a look, although he may be valued as much for his special teams work as a defender. Blanton and Sendejo are the most experienced and currently the front-runners to earn the starting spot, but Exum is an up and comer who could be nipping at their heels.

The fact that the team’s general manager is excited about his progress says a lot about his chances to earn the job.

Harris may take a year or so to develop, but whenever he is ready he could become a valuable part of the Vikings defense. The Vikings seem to know what they have in both Blanton and Sendejo, but also seem to be excited in what they have in the up-and-coming players Exum and Harris.

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