For the better part of Mike Zimmer’s first three offseasons in Minnesota, as the Vikings adorned their defense with high-value assets, the safety position next to Harrison Smith felt like a bit of an outlier.
The Vikings held what amounted to an open audition for the job in Zimmer’s first training camp with the team, shuttling through names such as Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton and Antone Exum. They released Kurt Coleman at the end of training camp — a year before he’d tie for third in the NFL with seven interceptions — and brought former Bengals safety Chris Crocker out of retirement before cutting Crocker at the end of camp.
Blanton won the job that first year, starting 13 games before losing his starting spot to Sendejo at the end of the season. The Vikings targeted Virginia safety Anthony Harris as an undrafted free agent the following spring, giving him a $10,000 signing bonus, and showed at least cursory interest in safety Devin McCourty before he re-signed with the Patriots.
After the 2015 season — during which Sendejo started 13 games for the Vikings — Zimmer talked at the NFL combine about how much more dynamic Smith could be with “the right kind” of safety next to him. The Vikings again looked at a free agent move, exploring a reunion between George Iloka and Zimmer before Iloka re-signed with the Bengals, and spent a seventh-round pick on Clemson safety Jayron Kearse in 2016.
While the Vikings sifted through their options, Sendejo continued to improve, earning Zimmer’s trust and proving himself to be a reliable enough option that the Vikings gave him a new deal before the 2016 season. He started 14 games that year, and played 13 last season, missing two with a groin injury and one because of a suspension after the Week 7 hit he delivered on Ravens receiver Mike Wallace last year.
But as the Vikings prepare to play without Sendejo for the second straight week Sunday against the Jets, the winds of change could be picking up at the safety position again.
Sendejo, who turned 31 the day of the Vikings’ first regular-season game, will miss his second straight game on Sunday because of a groin injury. That’s opened up a starting spot for Iloka, who signed with the team in August after the Bengals released him. He played 43 snaps on Sunday, while Harris came down with an interception on one of his 15 snaps.
Both Kearse and Iloka have flashed their versatility as nickel corners in the Vikings’ three-safety package, which the Vikings have deployed this season more frequently than they have in the past.
“It gives you some flexibility. There are a lot of reasons,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want to get too complicated but it’s just better cover guys than typically when you get linebackers in there.”
Iloka said he was new to the nickel spot this season, and has consulted with nickel/defensive backs coach Terence Newman about how to handle the transition.
“It’s definitely an important position — that’s why whoever Zim puts at that position, he entrusts with a lot,” Iloka said. “There’s so much that goes on with the nickel that can affect so many other players. Things happen faster — you’re going to have to win a lot with your feet, and be very good with your eyes. At safety, you’ve got to have good feet, but you have time to see things develop. At the nickel, things happen fast. It’s a lot of reacting.”
It’s also provided another way for players like Iloka and Kearse to contribute, which could increase their value to the Vikings in the future.
The Vikings have built their safety depth by developing affordable young players such as Kearse (who is making $630,000 in the third year of his rookie deal) and Harris, who is playing for $705,000 in his final season before restricted free agency. Iloka, who is on a one-year deal for the veteran minimum salary, could be eyeing another shot at free agency next March before his 29th birthday, though he could return to the Vikings next year if the price is right.
The four-year deal the Vikings gave Sendejo in March 2016 includes a team option at $5.5 million for the 2019 season, when the safety will be 32. In a year where the Vikings figure to be looking for cap space as pricey extensions for Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs and Eric Kendricks hit the books, declining Sendejo’s option could be an easy way to recoup some money.
He was fined $53,982 for his Week 2 hit on Green Bay’s Davante Adams, paying a bigger penalty for the hit after a fine and suspension last year. As the NFL implements greater protections for defenseless players, Sendejo could find his style of play to be more untenable, and the prevalence of wide-open offenses could place a higher premium on flexible safeties who can play several roles in the Vikings’ defense.
Thanks to the addition of Iloka, and the emergence of Kearse and Harris, they’re able to weather a nagging injury to Sendejo on the back end of their defense, as they roll out a new set of counterparts next to Smith. At the safety spot next to the Vikings All-Pro, perhaps change should be considered something of a constant.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com