In his second full season as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer has earned the reputation of being tough, but fair. He is quick to challenge players and call them out on their mistakes, especially those that get repeated. If a player doesn’t live up to those expectations, they don’t spend as much time on the field.
The most obvious player who witnessed that last season was Cordarrelle Patterson. Captain Munnerlyn wasn’t far behind. When a player struggles to execute what has been game-planned, whether obvious or subtle, those players don’t end up on the field as much.
While there has been little change to the depth chart throughout the preseason, there has been a quietly growing curiosity on whether safety Robert Blanton would hold onto the starting job opposite Harrison Smith.
Last year, Blanton won the starting strong safety spot almost by default. Expected to be a backup while the most commonly projected frontrunners to win the starting spot were incumbents Jamarca Sanford or Mistral Raymond. On Aug. 25, 2014, Raymond was placed on the waived-injured list and it ended his Vikings career. Five days later, Sanford was placed on injured reserve, reached an injury settlement a week later and Sanford wasn’t heard from again as a Viking.
Blanton had played alongside Smith at Notre Dame, so he had an inside track and familiarity with how Dirty Harry plays and what the tandem needs to do together to be effective. Blanton started 13 of the 15 games he played and did a decent job. But he wasn’t outstanding – to the point that when draft scouts listed team needs in free agency and the draft, one position specifically noted was strong safety. By the end of the 2014 season, it was Andrew Sendejo starting.
Blanton had owned the job by default in 2014, not by a mandate. His primary competition got hurt and ended up on injured reserve.
This spring, General Manager Rick Spielman made a point to stop a draft question in its tracks to go back to a previous question about the Vikings not drafting or signing a safety in free agency and pointed out how impressed the Vikings were in Antone Exum. The timing of the statement sent the clear message that, while Blanton was still the starter, he not only was going to face a challenge to his starting job, but it might be a challenge in which he comes out of the short end.
During training camp and practices, including Saturday’s practice, the player who seemed to be getting more looks was Andrew Sendejo, a special teams headhunter who worked his way on the field more with the defense last year – even starting in front of Blanton at the end of the season. He made an impression with the speed and technically sound plays he made when plays unfolded in front of him.
Yet, Blanton remains atop the unofficial depth chart as the starting strong safety. Asked about Blanton’s preseason, Zimmer said that Blanton has done fine, but followed up with a teaching tool that Zimmer feels Blanton hasn’t fully embraced or picked up on.
“Sometimes Robert needs to – he’s always wanting to make plays and sometimes he needs to make the safe play as opposed to trying to get other things,” Zimmer said. “He’s got his strengths and, hopefully, we can play to those.”
Asked who has been the most consistent strong safety on the roster, Blanton’s name wasn’t the first mentioned. It was Sendejo, the same Sendejo who started the final three games of the 2014 season.
Heading into the 2015 regular season opener, as things currently stand, Blanton remains in the same spot he was in the 2014 regular season opener – sitting atop the depth chart at strong safety. The unofficial one.
This time, however, there aren’t two players in front of him that are sitting on I.R. Don’t be stunned if Sendejo takes his spot … perhaps as early as tomorrow night.