Perhaps trying to emulate what the Seahawks did shutting down the Broncos to win the Super Bowl, NFL teams drafted a record nine defensive backs in the first round earlier this month.
Four of those players were safeties, which was the highest number selected in at least 25 years.
After drafting Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round, the Vikings were not back on the clock again until the middle of the third round. By then, safeties such as Deone Bucannon and Jimmie Ward were long gone. After they took defensive end Scott Crichton and running back Jerick McKinnon in the third round, the safeties continued to fly off the board.
The Vikings didn’t address the safety position until the sixth round, and even then, they turned to a defensive back who had lined up as the last line of defense for just a season and a half in college. The pick, Antone Exum, was announced as a corner. But after the draft ended, general manager Rick Spielman said that the plan was to start out the Virginia Tech standout at safety.
The following weekend, at the team’s rookie minicamp, head coach Mike Zimmer spoke about how difficult it can be to project some college defensive backs to the safety position in the pros.
“The safety position in college football really is hard to find guys now at least in my opinion, guys that have the coverage ability that you are looking for,” Zimmer said two weeks ago. “There are times in my career that I always thought, ‘Let’s play with three corners and one safety and make the other guy a safety because of the throwing that’s been going on in the league.’”
Zimmer continued: “The bigger corners that may not be quite as fast that are better tacklers, that are more physical, smart -- they have to be smart -- we always have a little category for those guys to be a possibility of being safeties. And Rick [Spielman], their group upstairs, really they have little niche places for all of these guys so they’ve been doing it for a while.”
Robert Blanton played cornerback at Notre Dame but was immediately moved to safety after he was drafted by the Vikings in 2012 (he did get some snaps as the team’s nickel cornerback in 2013). They took a similar approach with Mistral Raymond, who played both corner and safety, like Exum, at South Florida. They said he had the size of a safety and could cover like a corner.
This practice, of course, is nothing new. The Cardinals look smart (right now at least) for gambling on Tyrann Mathieu, who played cornerback at LSU but plays both free safety and nickelback in the NFL. The Bills have had some success putting Aaron Williams through a similar transformation. And Charles Woodson and Darren Sharper made the switch to safety as veterans.
The Vikings, who waited until the sixth round to take a chance on a tweener in Exum, are hopeful that he can make a similarly-seamless transition to the safety position in the NFL.