Of the Minnesota Vikings’ 11 defensive positions, only one seems completely up for grabs.
The starting four defensive linemen are set with a strong rotation behind them. The starting three linebackers return from last year, along with the top four cornerbacks and the addition of rookie Mackensie Alexander. The big question is who will start next to Harrison Smith at safety.
It’s been the most consistent offseason question the last two years with Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo and a cast of others filling the spot. Last year, it was largely Sendejo’s job but for injuries.
This year, Sendejo has some real competition in veteran free-agent acquisition Michael Griffin, who played for defensive backs coach Jerry Gray in Tennessee.
Smith has never played with Griffin before, but he has seen him plenty.
“He’s a guy I’ve watched ever since he was at Texas and then when he came to Tennessee I obviously got to see him a lot,” Smith said. “I’m excited just to be around him. He’s obviously a guy that knows the game well, has had a great career, so just being able to be around him, obviously he’s a playmaker and can help us a lot.”
Griffin was a first-round pick of the Titans in the same year the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson a dozen spots before Griffin was taken, and the veteran safety played for the Texas Longhorns with Brian Robison as a teammate.
For Robison, the addition of Griffin not only helps the defense but also helps the Texas Longhorns contingent in the locker room.
“We’ve got some USC guys that like to talk a lot of smack so winning a National Championship against them helps,” Robison said, clearly intent on stirring the locker room rivalries. “ Notre Dame guys are obviously going to talk a little bit of smack to us. That’s nice – we won a National Championship and they didn’t. I’m happy about it.”
In nine NFL seasons, Griffin has amassed some solid statistics with two Pro Bowl selections added to his résumé. Asked what Griffin’s presence brings to the defense, Xavier Rhodes turned it around.
“What he don’t bring?” Rhodes asked. “The last past couple of years he’s been physical coming down with the tackles and interceptions. That’s a guy that’s going to fit in right along with the defense. As you’ve seen in the past couple years, our defense has been quite physical in every aspect, every position, so he’s going to fit right in.”
In 141 career games and 133 starts, Griffin has recorded 912 tackles, 25 interceptions, 65 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss.
If Griffin, who was released by the Titans after their season ended, is the starter for the Vikings, it could increase the versatility of the two safeties. For now, however, all that remains to be seen.
“I don’t know necessarily about my role, as far as if it will be different. I think that’s probably more of a question for (the coaches),” Smith said. “I think we obviously, all of us that have been here, have a better understanding each and every rep that we get, so I think that helps. Whatever (Mike Zimmer) has designed for us, we can make it work.”