There was a lot of speculation surrounding the safety position next to Harrison Smith when the Minnesota Vikings entered into the offseason. Andrew Sendejo was the starter for the entirety of the 2015 season, when healthy, and the team re-signed him to a four-year, $16 million contract.
They also signed veteran safety Michael Griffin to a one-year deal, and have two young players in Antone Exum and Anthony Harris who both received experience starting last season and who looked good in doing so. The Vikings then drafted Jayron Kearse in the seventh round of the 2016 draft, so the competition for that second safety spot is plentiful.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has primarily been going with Sendejo working with the first-team defense, but there are things about all the players that he likes. He just seems to be waiting for one of them to really jump off the page at him and take control of the position.
“Sendejo’s a quick reactor,” Zimmer began. “He’s very smart, he’s a good downhill player, good tackler. Playing in the deep part of the field, that area of the field is where, if he can improve in that spot, then that would help.
“I’m looking at Griffin there. I do like a lot of the things Kearse does. He’s young and learning, but he does some good things. Exum is probably the best athlete of the crew. Anthony Harris is the safest, maybe. He’s smart and puts himself in good positions most of the times.”
Exum has been with Zimmer since he first took over as the Vikings head coach in 2014. The team drafted him in the sixth round that year, so he has had plenty of time to learn the system. That’s why it seems so odd that he still makes plays that leaves Zimmer scratching his head.
He has all the athleticism necessary to play the position at a high level, but he still just needs to earn the trust of his head coach.
“Sometimes it’s the decisions he has to make on the move,” Zimmer said of where Exum seems to struggle the most. “That’s really where it comes down to. Pre-snap he’s pretty good and then when things are a little bit cloudy, that’s where he has issues.”
Harris seems to have the opposite problem that Exum does out on the field. He is a smart player and is almost always in the right spot, he just doesn’t have the same athleticism that a lot of the other players possess.
His head coach knows that he is a good player, and a smart one, but he wants to see him take the next step and make more plays out on the field, plays like the interception he was able to record in Thursday’s practice.
“When he gets into games, just making plays. He made a couple today,” Zimmer said of Harris. “There’s a part about about being an athlete and there’s a part about reacting quick so you can get jumps on the ball and things like that. I think he’s pretty good at that, so if he can continue to improve, he can’t afford to take a lot of false steps, otherwise he’s going to get out athleted.”
Then there is Kearse, who is probably the longest shot to earn the starting spot but may have the highest ceiling. He is a big safety, coming in at 6-4, 215 pounds, and while Zimmer loves big, long players, that size could end up hurting him on the football field.
“For most big guys, it’s transition,” he began when listing things bigger safeties struggle with. “Going from front to back, or back to front, opening up and things (like that). That’s typically what it is, or sometimes it’s breaking down in space, if a guy’s a big knee bender. There’s been a lot of good safeties in the NFL that are 6-4.I think Kenny Easley was a big guy and (George) Iloka in Cincinnati is 6-4 or something. Cam Chancellor, and they play him a little bit different than we do. There’s guys that can do it that are, some of these big safeties, and I like big guys.”
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Each player still has something to prove to Zimmer in order to secure that starting role, and the head coach has already said that the competition will likely carry into the preseason. He wants to be able to see how these players perform in an actual game, not just in practice, before making any final decisions.
- Cordarrelle Patterson and Jerick McKinnon both participated in the morning walk-thru, but were both unable to go in the afternoon practice.
- Terence Newman had limited reps in practice, but Zimmer said they were just giving him some extra rest. Trae Waynes was getting first-team reps in his place.
- The defense recorded four interceptions during 11-on-11. Harris picked off a pass from Joel Stave that was intended for Kyle Carter, Waynes picked off Teddy Bridgewater when he was targeting Stefon Diggs, Xavier Rhodes picked off Bridgewater in the end zone when he was targeting Adam Thielen, and Melvin White was able to rip a pass away from Moritz Böhringer in the end zone.
- Blair Walsh went 7-for-8 kicking field goals, missing a 43-yarder wide right from the right hash.
- Joe Berger continued to trade off with John Sullivan, receiving first-team reps today. But Andre Smith received first-team reps for the second day in a row, the first time that has happened this training camp. He usually rotates with T.J. Clemmings.
- Griffin received quite a few first-team reps in place of Sendejo.