As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Defensive backs
Current starters: Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, A.J. Jefferson, Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford
Reserves under contract: Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton, Brandon Burton, Marcus Sherels, Bobby Felder, Greg McCoy, Andrew Sendejo, Nick Taylor, Roderick Williams
Biggest offseason move: The Vikings’ surprise move to cut Antoine Winfield in the hour before free agency began may have been a calculated gamble that backfired badly. Yes, clearing Winfield’s $7.25 million salary for 2013 off the books was a move that better positioned the front office to attack their free agent signings the way they so desired. But it seems as if the “purely business” approach used by General Manager Rick Spielman to release Winfield didn’t sit well with the veteran cornerback himself. Winfield didn’t like the timing of the move, felt he deserved better after nine splendid seasons here and was puzzled that the Vikings did not approach his agent with any sort of proposal for a potential restructuring. The Vikings may have hoped they could easily re-sign Winfield once he saw what the open market had to offer. But ultimately Winfield opted to sign a one-year deal with the Seahawks worth up to $3 million. The Vikings were offering a comparable contract, willing to give Winfield a two-year, $6 million deal. But Winfield decided he was ready to move on.
Sure, the Vikings’ plan was to transition Winfield into a full-time role as a nickelback. And paying $7.25 million seemed steep for a part-time player. But keep in mind, in today’s pass-happy NFL and especially in the NFC North, Winfield still would have been on the field the majority of the time as the team’s top slot corner. Plus, he had been due to make only $3 million in 2013 before playing more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 and triggering an escalator that pushed his salary up to $7.25 million. So it wasn’t as if Winfield hadn’t earned his way up to the price tag that the Vikings didn’t want to pay.
Regardless, with his exit, the Vikings’ have major needs at cornerback and will have to turn to the draft to address them.
Level of draft need for cornerbacks: High. Winfield’s exit – released on March 12, signed by Seattle on April 12 – may have made cornerback the position of highest priority for the Vikings heading into the draft. At present, their top three corners are Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson with little quality depth beyond that.
Level of draft need for safeties: Low. While there may again be a startling lack of depth at corner, the Vikings feel they have a full stable of potential playmakers at safety. Harrison Smith is the headliner of the unit while Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton all have promise in their own ways.
You should know: After an incredibly impressive 2012, Sanford has earned the right to remain the Vikings’ second starting safety heading into training camp. After losing his starting job to Raymond in Mankato last year, Sanford never sulked and found his way back into the mix in late-September when Raymond suffered a dislocated ankle that kept him out for six games. Even upon Raymond’s November return, Sanford remained the starter. And while sharing the workload with Raymond late in the season, he continued to show marked growth. Sanford’s energy is contagious and he continues to draw praise as a guy who embodies the unselfishness, toughness and passion that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is looking to build around.
But … (And you knew a but was coming right?) While Sanford may start training camp as the designated starter, he doesn’t have a stranglehold on that role. Far from it.
Frazier understands Sanford is a special teams ace and may be at his most valuable overall if allowed to concentrate more on that role. Plus, there are not only high hopes for Raymond as a guy who has more promise in coverage, but it’s not unforeseeable that Blanton could take a huge leap forward and perhaps end up starting alongside Smith before this year is over.
Blanton pressed through a conversion from cornerback to safety last year but also impressed the coaching staff with his ability to quickly pick things up.
“As the year went on, he made strides understanding space and angles from the safety position,” Frazier said. “And he plays with a high motor. He plays 100 miles per hour at all times. But he's a pretty smart, athletic guy. So, he gives us hope that he's going to give us something back there with his ball skills as well to help us to get those turnovers that we're always talking about.”
With Raymond out with that ankle injury and Smith ejected early from the Vikings’ Week 5 home win over Tennessee, Blanton saw extensive action alongside Sanford and played well.
"It was [significant]," Frazier said. "When you consider how little time he had had at the position and to go out there and play as well as he did, that was encouraging. That kind of opened all of our eyes up that, 'Hey, this guy, he has a chance when given the opportunity."
One more thing: Even before Winfield’s departure, the expectation was that second-year DB Josh Robinson would earn and keep the second starting spot at cornerback opposite Chris Cook. Robinson had bouts of inconsistency throughout his rookie season last year and was barely on the field in the final weeks as the Vikings looked for more reliable options to complete their playoff push. But there’s every expectation inside the organization that Robinson will return for 2013 more confident and better positioned for a true breakthrough.
“He needs to win that starting job to make us a better team,” Frazier said.
Frazier knows Robinson has rare athleticism. He also realized Robinson was only 21 years old last season after entering the NFL after his junior season at Central Florida.
Still, there were plenty of eye-catching moments delivered, none more memorable to Frazier than the nifty interception and 44-yard return Robinson delivered in the first quarter of a 21-14 Week 14 win over Chicago.
“When he made that catch, the ball was away from him. It could’ve been a drop easily,” Frazier said. “He makes that grab and has the awareness to take it down the sideline and almost scored. When you see plays like that, you know there is something there that every guy doesn’t have that plays that position. And that lets you know if you can develop some consistency, you’ve got a chance to develop a very, very good player. He’s as fast as anybody in our league. But then to see the eye-hand coordination and the ability to be able to make those types of plays, that’s big.”