There was a lot of speculation about who the Minnesota Vikings’ second safety would be heading into the 2015 season. Harrison Smith had the free safety spot locked down; the only question was who was going to be the strong safety. The primary candidates appeared to be Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton and Antone Exum Jr.
The list appeared to narrow down to just Sendejo and Blanton during training camp, though, as Exum most worked behind Smith, rarely with him or in the strong safety spot.
It was a little surprising that Exum never really got the opportunity to prove himself as the team’s starting safety. At 6 feet, 219 pounds he has pretty good size to play the position, he is a converted cornerback – so he should be seasoned with coverage – and he seems to have a knack for getting his hands on the ball whenever he is on the field.
When Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was asked about Exum and his chances to earn a starting spot he said the second-year safety still needed to grow up.
So Exum started the season as Smith’s backup and did some work on special teams as well. He would have the chance to play in some snaps throughout the season, but he got his first chance to start a game Week 12 against the Atlanta Falcons. He recorded three tackles, one tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery during that game, but more importantly he didn’t make any big mistakes that hurt the team.
Exum got the chance to start the Vikings’ Week 13 game as well against the Seattle Seahawks. He recorded five tackles, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in this game, but he was also playing with injured ribs and a shoulder for a majority of the game.
He was not sure exactly when it happened, but he seemed to remember it being in the first quarter of the game when Russell Wilson hit his tight end Cooper Helfet over the middle. Exum chased the tight end down, dove at him and caught cornerback Terence Newman’s knee in his side.
“I dove after him, I missed him and when I hit the ground I think it happened then,” Exum said. “I just remember they were huddled up and I was walking back to the huddle and all of a sudden I took a deep breathe and I was like, ‘Oh, what the hell is that?’ So it wasn’t like it happened right away, I guess it gradually started to get worse.”
Exum played through the remainder of the game, but his performance was hindered some. He was then placed on injured reserve following the Vikings’ loss and his starting job was given to undrafted free agent rookie Anthony Harris, whom the team had just called up from the practice squad.
While it was hard for Exum to be placed on IR after finally getting a chance to start, he felt he proved that he can start in the NFL but also knows there are still parts of his game that need improvement.
“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. Still, as I look back at the games and study those two games there’s definitely room for improvement that I can take into next season.”
Exum’s injuries did not require surgeries, mostly just rest and rehab, which he has finished. That means that he can now focus on getting better and improving his game so he can come back and compete for the starting spot next to Smith.
“I don’t like to pinpoint stuff,” he said. “Every time I go into the offseason I try to get better at almost every aspect of my game just because I don’t want anything to fall behind or anything like that. So when I come back I like everything to be at a heightened point from when I left. That goes from anywhere from the mental aspect of it, ball skills, covering, tackling, I mean every aspect I try to come back and improve.”