When Mike Zimmer was first named head coach of the Minnesota Vikings back in 2014 he spent his first two offseasons primarily focused on re-building the defense. He has worked as a defensive coach throughout his career in the NFL, so it makes sense that he would start with what he knows best. But now that means there are no longer many holes that need to be filled on defense.
The biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball (if Chad Greenway returns) is the second safety position. Harrison Smith is one of the best young safeties in the NFL and just finished playing in his first Pro Bowl, but the team has been looking for someone to play next to him the past few years.
Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo have been the primary starters at that position since Zimmer took over the team, but Blanton wasn’t able to step up and hold onto that position long term. Although Sendejo holds value, both free agents this offseason and it wouldn’t be surprising if the team decided to move away from both of them.
Exum just finished up his second season with the Vikings and many people thought that he was a player who could possibly get the nod to start next to Smith at the beginning of the season. Zimmer put a damper on that during training camp, though, when he said that Exum still needed to grow up.
When he is on the field, Exum seems to have a natural ability to get his hands on the ball. Whether that is luck or skill, it is something the Vikings need as they struggled turning the ball over for most of the season.
Exum was put on injured reserve, ending his season, after he suffered injuries to his ribs and shoulder in his second start against the Seattle Seahawks. He said he would be ready to go when offseason workouts commence and believes he did enough on the field to be up for discussion as a starter in 2016.
Harris, like Exum, is a young safety who had the opportunity to start in two games last season. Even though he was an undrafted rookie receiving his first playing time in the NFL, Harris never appeared to be overwhelmed and seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Zimmer wanted to quickly put the brakes on the Harris talks after his first start, saying it is not time to anoint him as the next big thing, but it was clear that he was happy with the way Harris played.
These two are definitely going to be in the discussion this offseason of whom the next starting safety will be, but it is also likely that the team will bring in more players to compete for the position, either in free agency or the draft.
Safety could arguably be the deepest free agent grouping this offseason as it is loaded with talent, so the Vikings should have no problem signing one if they wish to do so. The question then becomes what sort of money they are willing to spend, especially when they have key players who will be free agents in the coming years that they are going to want to re-sign.
Eric Berry – If they are willing to shell out the money, the No. 1 free safety option this offseason would be Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs. He is best known for beating cancer and then coming back for the 2016 season and playing at a high level, recording 61 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
At the age of 27 Berry is in his prime and has plenty of years left in him. As he continues to come back from his battle with cancer he should continue to gain back strength, making him even better than he was last season.
The biggest problems here are the fact that the Chiefs are going to want to do everything in their power to keep him around and players often tend to lean toward staying with the teams that drafted them. He is going to draw a long-term contract with a big price tag and the Vikings are likely going to have to give Smith that next season when his contract expires. It’s unlikely they will want to do that with both of their safeties.
George Iloka – Another young, talented safety the Vikings could look to bring in is George Iloka of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Vikings will have an in with Iloka since Zimmer was the defensive coordinator of the Bengals when they drafted Iloka in the fifth round of the 2012 season, and Zimmer was the safety’s defensive coordinator for his first two seasons.
Players always talk about how much they respect Zimmer as a coach, and if Iloka views his former coach the same way it could really help the Vikings’ efforts to sign him. Moving to a team that has a defense he already knows and is comfortable with is huge and would make the transition much easier for him.
Iloka is just 25 years old and has three years of experience starting in the NFL. He dealt with some injuries last year, which caused his stats to decline some, but he was still able to record 47 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed.
Reggie Nelson – Another Bengals safety that the Vikings may choose to target is Reggie Nelson. Zimmer was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator when they signed Nelson as a free agent in 2010 and then coached him up for four seasons, before moving on to Minnesota.
Nelson is currently 32 years old, which is often older than most free agents the Vikings choose to target, but safety is a position where players can tend to play longer into their careers. He would not be a long-term answer for the team but he could be a player that fills in for a year or two while the team develops players like Exum and Harris a little more behind him.
One thing that Nelson offers that would be very appealing to the Vikings is durability. He has been a starter since he first entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 2008, and in those nine years he has missed just six games. That stability in the back end of their secondary would be welcomed for a team that just went through a slew of injuries at safety last season that resulted in them starting a cornerback and an undrafted rookie at safety against the Arizona Cardinals.
Even though Nelson is older than a lot of the safeties in the NFL he is still able to put up good numbers. Last season he recorded 77 tackles, two fumble recoveries, eight interceptions and 14 passes defensed. The Vikings would love to have a player with that ability to create turnovers, as it is one of the few things their defense struggled with last season.
Others – Some other safeties that the Vikings will likely take a look at this offseason are Eric Weddle (31 years old) of the San Diego Chargers, Tashaun Gipson (26) of the Cleveland Browns, Walter Thurmond (29) of the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodney McLeod (26) of the Los Angeles Rams and Isa Abdul-Quddus (27) of the Detroit Lions.
As mentioned earlier, safety is arguably the deepest position in free agency this offseason, giving the Vikings plenty of options. The biggest question, though, is how much they are willing to pay with Smith’s contract set to expire next offseason and how they feel about Harris and Exum.
If they feel confident in Harris and Exum as starters, they may look to avoid the more premier safeties in the group and instead bring in a player or two to compete with them. But the large number of safeties available could also drop the value of Sendejo and make him more willing to re-sign a cap-friendly deal and give them familiar insurance with younger players in the wings.