Key matchups: Minnesota Vikings’ questions at safety

The Vikings have six safeties likely vying for four roster spots. That makes their preseason performances vital, starting Friday night against the Bengals.

When you get to the regular season, our weekly “Key Matchup” feature focuses on an important Minnesota Vikings player lining up against an opponent who could provide the critical battle of that particular game.

In the preseason, however, the scores don’t matter in the big picture of things and the focus is more on the internal rather than the external. As a result, this week’s key matchup will involve the Vikings safeties.

The Vikings currently have six safeties on the roster and typically a team keeps 10 defensive backs. How that is parsed out is up to each coach, but typically it is either six cornerbacks and four safeties or five of each. Under either scenario, there are going to be some tough decisions made at the safety position.

Harrison Smith isn’t going anywhere. The Vikings made sure of that, signing him to a lucrative long-term deal to be the Vikings free safety for the rest of the decade and beyond.

That’s the easy part.

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The hard part is how the rest of the safeties will fall in line. The Vikings re-signed Andrew Sendejo to a multi-year deal to compete for a starting safety spot. That position was thrown into jeopardy by the signing of veteran Michael Griffin. While not a long-term solution to the position, Griffin is looking to reclaim his career much in the same way Terence Newman did when he came to the Vikings.

With those three positions expected to be locked down, the other three safeties may be competing for just one or two spots. Second-year pro Anthony Harris has been taking second- third-team team reps and being given the opportunity to show what he can do with the primary backups on the other side of the field in passing drills. He has had a year to impress Mike Zimmer and George Edwards, but he has to be looking over his shoulder at the competition – both of whom pose legitimate threats to his roster spot.

Antone Exum was a fifth-round pick in Zimmer’s first year with the Vikings and, a year ago at this time, he was one of the players who was the talk of training camp. There was buzz that he was going to be given a chance to compete for a starting job. That didn’t happen, but, when injuries came up at safety, Exum started two games before being placed on injured reserve and ending his season. Entering his third season, there are legitimate questions as to whether he is going to live up to his potential because, at this point, the competition is getting stiffer for roster spots on the improved Vikings defense. Last week, Zimmer called Exum the most athletic of the safeties competing for the job next to Smith.

The wild card in the mix is seventh-round rookie Jayron Kearse. Listed as 6-4 (he claims he’s 6-5), he isn’t a prototypical safety. But there is a quiet transformation taking place among defenses that hybrid types – safeties who have small-linebacker size – are finding sub-package roles in the NFL and some are elevating themselves into starting jobs. Often times, it requires the right player in the right defense to work, but clearly the Vikings front office and coaching staff are intrigued by his possibilities and it may be difficult to try to stash him on the practice squad as safety-desperate teams are on the hunt when cut-down time comes Labor Day weekend.

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Currently, there are six safeties on the Vikings roster. There is almost no chance that six will remain. An argument can be made that the decision-makers may have a difficult time keep more than four. As a result, there are a lot of promising NFL careers that are in jeopardy on the 2016 Vikings roster.

Make no mistake. Barring injuries between now and Labor Day weekend, all six of the safeties currently on the Vikings roster are likely going to end up on some NFL roster this season. The question is this: How many of them will be in Minnesota? That’s why the battle for positioning and roster spots is this week’s matchup to watch, because the only certainty at this point is that Smith will be starting at free safety. Other than that? The next month will tell that story.


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