The Vikings would like to see one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties do even more for the defense.
Harrison Smith signed a lucrative five-year contract extension this summer, just a few months before the secondary’s signal caller will lead the Vikings defense into Tennessee on Sunday. He’s already a jack-of-all-trades in the system, though the key to maximizing Smith might come from one of his teammates.
Andrew Sendejo started 13 games last year and remains the Vikings’ strong safety after an offseason competition that saw both Michael Griffin and Antone Exum Jr. land on injured reserve. Last year, the Vikings knocked on the door of a top-10 pass defense, ranking just outside of the upper echelon in passing touchdowns allowed (11th) and yards per game (12th).
To improve, the coaching staff has stressed Sendejo’s growth in coverage, specifically when he’s playing center fielder while Smith is near the line of scrimmage, according to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray.
“Being in the middle of the field, what are you doing when you’re reading the quarterback?” Gray said. “And those are one of the things we really, really made a stress on. Covering tight ends, he can do that. He can go and stop the run, but when you’re in the middle of the field, what do you expect?”
Should the Vikings be comfortable leaving Sendejo by himself in the back of the defense, Smith could do more of what he does best — play robber, cover bigger targets and demolish ball carriers. Either way, they like their chances with Smith in any spot.
“[Smith] can be really good close to the line of scrimmage,” Gray said. “And I think he can be really good back.”
Intrigue heightened at cornerback, where the Vikings made another valuable addition in second-round pick Mackensie Alexander. In the final year of his contract, Captain Munnerlyn is expected to keep his slot duties with Alexander a potential replacement.
So eyes fall on the two 6-1 bookends Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Both are in different stages of their development, Rhodes in his fourth year and Waynes his second. Expectations fall accordingly as coaches have seen a more concentrated Rhodes, who made interceptions almost daily in camp.
“You got a more focused guy,” Gray said. “He understands what we’re doing now.”
And after he fared decently in spot duty as a rookie, Waynes is being willed to match Rhodes’ aggression in coverage. “He’s improved a lot,” Zimmer said of Waynes, who deflected a Philip Rivers pass to create one of the Vikings’ seven interception this preseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Waynes start at left cornerback in Tennessee over incumbent stalwart Terence Newman, who turned 38 this month.
“God gave [Waynes] everything you need in a corner,” Gray said. “Now you basically have to cut it loose and go make a play.”