The Minnesota Vikings drafted eight players in 2016, but only five of them made the 53-man roster at the start of the season. One of those five was seventh-round pick Jayron Kearse, the team’s final selection of the draft.
Kearse is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound safety, tall and slender for the position. Head coach Mike Zimmer likes those long players because they are able to take up more room on the field, but Kearse was still a very raw player when he first joined the team and that’s a reason why he fell as far as he did in the draft.
He didn’t expect to fall that late and played with a chip on his shoulder all through the offseason and preseason to try and prove to everyone that they made a mistake passing on him. And that chip still remains after making the team to start the season.
“It’s definitely still there because I wanted show through preseason and now it’s onto showing it against the big dogs,” he said. “We’re going up against Marcus Mariota, you want to show it against those type of guys. Guys who are top-tier talent. It’s good to go out there and have a good preseason, but the chip is still there and I just want to continue to improve.”
Kearse was not surprised when he was told that he made the opening-day roster because it was what he expected from himself all along. He always believed he was good enough to play in the NFL, so he just wanted to go out and prove it to everyone that doubted him.
The next step for Kearse is to continue to learn the Vikings defense and get comfortable in it. Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo are the team’s starting safeties, but Kearse’s name could get called if either of them go down with injuries and he wants to make sure he is ready if that happens.
Instead of on defense, Kearse’s impact will be made mostly on special teams early in his career. He is praciticing in all four phases of special teams - kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kickoff return, punt return - and It’s something that is pretty new to him, but he has been improving every day and impressing the coaches.
“Jayron’s made a lot of strides,” said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. “I’m proud of where he’s come from. Back in the spring, obviously this was brand new to him. I don’t think he played in many special teams units at Clemson. I think he and several other rookies have made a lot of strides, but him in particular I’m really proud of the way he’s advanced. He made some big plays the other night. That was good for his confidence and good for our football team.”
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Not only does Kearse’s size give him an advantage on the defensive side of the ball, but it also does on special teams. His length gives him the ability to hold the edges more during kick coverage units, which forces the returns back to the inside of the field. His height also gives him the ability to see over a lot of people, which allows him to find the returners a lot easier and then make a play on the ball.
Kearse originally came into Vikings camp with the hopes of being the Day 1 starter next to Smith, but that won’t be the case initially. Now, he just wants to be able to go out and help his team win any way he can, and at the moment that will mostly be on special teams.
“I can succeed on special teams as long as the team needs me to,” he said. “Just really embrace my role and if that’s just a special teams guy then I’m going to be a great special teams guy. Really just go out there and do everything the team asks me to do.”