Thirty minutes of batting practice at Target Field was enough for the rest of the Vikings players to see Jayron Kearse probably wasn’t recruited to play baseball.
Between mingling with Twins and Angels players during ‘Skol Night’ this week, Kearse defended himself to teammates like Eric Kendricks, the former schoolyard shortstop who was quick to fault Kearse with the worst swing of the eight Vikings defenders at the plate. Safety Anthony Harris didn’t buy the defense Kearse, 25, had never swung at a baseball let alone ever played on a team.
“[Harris] played baseball before,” Kearse countered to an onlooker, “and he’s still bad.”
Not that much will be new to Kearse on the football field in 2019.
Instead, the fourth-year Vikings safety is looking forward to settling into a position he only started to grasp last season. When Organized Team Activities begin on Tuesday, Kearse expects to be one of a few Vikings vying for playing time as the nickel defensive back (slot defender).
“Last year, I played the nickel, but that was all off of instincts,” said Kearse, who played a career-high 202 defensive snaps [19.4%] last season. “Now, I had time to work at it knowing I’ll be in that role and playing that position.”
Motivation should be easy for Kearse. The former 2016 seventh-round pick (244th overall) is set to be a free agent next spring, so he’s playing for a new contract. That’s not his focus, said Kearse, who is one of four Vikings defensive backs – joining safety Anthony Harris and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – entering contract seasons and playing for new money.
“Everything will take care of itself,” Kearse said. “Not buying into this is the year, I’m just playing football.”
Before 2018, playing football meant being a disruptive gunner on the Vikings’ special teams. His only start at safety, in the middle of his rookie season, ended quickly because of a bad angle on a 69-yard run by the Bears’ Jordan Howard.
So Kearse earned his stripes on special teams and was finally thrown into the mix last summer, when head coach Mike Zimmer began deploying his tall safeties — Kearse (6-foot-4) and George Iloka (6-foot-4) — as matchup-based slot defenders in the red zone and against run-heavy offenses.
He fared specifically well as a run defender, where five of Kearse’s seven tackles against rushers were pegged as “stops” by Pro Football Focus, meaning a loss for the offense. They were as many as cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who played more than double the snaps as the Vikings’ primary slot defender.
But Kearse’s playing time was sporadic and fizzled, peaking with 37 plays against the Saints in Week 8. His only start came a few weeks later in Chicago, where Kearse started as the slot defender against a run-happy Bears offense. Chicago then opened the game with five straight runs.
His role was already as a faux linebacker, aligning inside or near the box as the fifth defensive back when the third linebacker (Eric Wilson or Ben Gedeon) was removed from the field.
But Kearse got a laugh when a report this spring claimed he was leaving the DBs room to become a weak-side linebacker.
“It was funny to me that everybody ran with it,” Kearse said.
He’ll compete this summer with fellow defensive backs for snaps at safety and nickel cornerback, but Kearse said he won’t be in the linebacker room alongside established starters Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
“Nah, that’s a lot of money for Anthony Barr,” Kearse said. “You can guarantee he’s going to be on the field.”