The Minnesota Vikings ended the 2015 regular season with the No. 5 defense in the NFL for points allowed. Since Mike Zimmer took over as the head coach in 2014 the offseasons have primarily been geared toward improving the defense, whether it be through free agency or the draft.
Zimmer has put together one of the best defenses in the NFL, and heading into this offseason there are very few holes he will need to fill. Both Chad Greenway and Terence Newman are free agents this season, but Greenway has already expressed that he wants to return for an 11th season and they have 2015’s first-round draft pick Trae Waynes to replace Newman at cornerback if Newman decides to retire.
The only defensive position that really needs to be addressed this offseason is the starting safety spot next to Harrison Smith. Both Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton have worked there as starters under Zimmer, but neither really stepped and proved that they should be the long-term starter.
They are both unrestricted free agents this offseason and it is likely that Blanton will be allowed to look elsewhere. If Sendejo isn’t re-signed, the real question then is whether the Vikings bring in a free agent, address the position in the draft, or if the team feels comfortable with one of the players already on their roster to step up and fill the void.
If the team chooses to address the position in free agency with a top-tier talent, there are a couple options available. The first is Eric Berry. He is best known for beating cancer and then returning to the NFL, but the six-year veteran is still one of the best safeties in the NFL. The Vikings would have to pay a pretty penny to get Berry, but having him lined up with Smith at the back end of the defense would be a dangerous combination.
The other top option would be Eric Weddle. He is a nine-year veteran that has spent his entire career with the San Diego Chargers but has expressed some frustration with the Chargers organization and is likely spending the rest of his career elsewhere. The Vikings don’t usually target older free agents, but Weddle could be a player they choose to still target anyway, just because of his proven track record.
One other option they could implement with free agency is re-sign cornerback Newman and instead of having him play cornerback again, where Waynes will likely play in 2016, have Newman line up at safety. He did play the position against the Arizona Cardinals this past season and expressed that he actually feels safety would be an easier position to play than cornerback.
There is still a lot of evaluations to go into prospects before the NFL draft, but you can already start to get a read on players coming out of college. The top safety prospects right now are likely going to be Jalen Ramsey out of Florida State, Keanu Neal out of Florida, Jeremy Cash out of Duke, Jayron Kearse out of Clemson, Tony Conner out of Ole Miss, Marcus Maye out of Florida, and Vonn Bell out of Ohio State. Of course, there is still plenty of time for one of them to fall out of favor or another player to step up, but if the Vikings are going to draft a player with hopes of one of them stepping in and starting Day 1, it will likely be one of them.
The final option for the Vikings is that they feel comfortable with one of the players already on their roster to step up and take over the starting role. The two players who would likely be competing for that starting role are Anthony Harris and Antone Exum Jr. Both players were forced to step up and fill in as a starter for a couple games because of injury this past season, but neither did enough to hold onto the job long-term.
Exum was a sixth-round draft pick in 2014 and was the player to fill in for Smith against the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks. He also would have likely started in more games following that but he suffered a shoulder and rib injury against the Seahawks, which caused the Vikings to place him on injured reserve.
In those two games he was able to record eight tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. While those stats may not jump off the page to anyone, Exum does feel like he did enough to throw his hat in the conversation of possible starters for 2016.
“I definitely feel like I did some good things out there,” he said. “I think that I showed that I can start for this team, but I think I left a lot of room for improvement out there, barring the situation of me playing injured and stuff like that.”
The other player on the Vikings roster that the team will likely consider is Harris. He was an undrafted rookie in 2015 that the Vikings originally signed to their practice squad. But they signed him to the active roster later in the season because of all the injuries to their safeties and he was asked to start against the Arizona Cardinals and the Chicago Bears.
He recorded 13 tackles and two pass breakups in those two games and seemed to take a different approach than Exum did when asked about the possibility of being a starter. Where Exum said he feels like he did enough to be in the conversation of who will be the next starter, Harris more side-stepped the question.
“I actually don’t really think about stuff like that too much,” he said. “I honestly don’t really get into contracts and numbers and stuff like that. I’m just all about focusing on myself, being a good teammate, trying to be a better player each day, so going into this offseason that’s what I’ll do. Just focus on putting myself in the best position to do whatever they need me to do. So that’s what I’ll focus on.”
The second starting safety spot will likely be a hot topic of discussion throughout the offseason. It is still early in the offseason to tell how exactly the Vikings are going to approach it, but there are some names to consider whether they address it through free agency, the draft or players already on their roster.