When the Vikings spent a seventh-round pick on Jayron Kearse — a 6-4 safety not known for his quickness — back in 2016, it’s unlikely they envisioned him playing the role he could occupy Sunday: Lining up in the slot at Lambeau Field, trying to match wits with the future Hall of Fame quarterback across from him.
As fate would have it, though, that’s precisely what could be next in Kearse’s metamorphosis.
He has gone from a raw defensive back to a key contributor who earned a special teams captain role for the 2019 season and has carved out a spot in the Vikings’ big nickel package, where Kearse’s size functions as an effective countermeasure for teams who might try to run out of three-receiver sets.
With Mackensie Alexander, his college teammate at Clemson and fellow 2016 draft pick, possibly in line to miss Sunday’s game at Green Bay because of a dislocated right elbow suffered in the season-opening victory over Atlanta, Kearse could be next up at nickel corner. Coach Mike Zimmer said there’s a chance the Vikings could get 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes back from last season’s torn knee ligament in time for Sunday; Hughes, he said, has gone through quite a bit of conditioning work, and if he’s deemed ready to play, “I’m sure we’ll have packages for him,” Zimmer said.
If both Alexander and Hughes are out, though, Kearse could continue in the nickel role he occupied after Alexander was hurt in the second quarter vs. the Falcons.
“Honestly, I’ve played more nickel than I’ve played safety [in Minnesota],” Kearse said. “The biggest challenge is, me being a taller guy, getting in and out of breaks with short, shifty guys. That’s really the biggest thing, but that’s something I’ve been working on.”
Slot receivers are often typecast as quick, diminutive receivers, but the position has changed in recent years as NFL teams have moved bigger receivers into the middle of the field or bumped agile tight ends out from the line of scrimmage. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings’ Adam Thielen — who stands 6-2 and weighs 200 pounds — caught more passes from the slot than any receiver in football last year, followed by the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster (6-1, 215).
The Cardinals’ 6-3 Larry Fitzgerald works frequently out of the slot, and the Packers put 6-3 Geronimo Allison and 6-1 Davante Adams there more often than any of their other receivers in Thursday night’s opener against Chicago.
“You have the unique guys — the Cole Beasleys [from Buffalo], those real shifty guys — but you have guys like we just went up against, [Atlanta’s] Mohamed Sanu. These are bigger guys in the slot,” Kearse said. “That’s not too difficult for me — he’s shifty getting in and out of the breaks, but when you go against those smaller guys, then it becomes a lot more difficult. I know over there in Green Bay, they don’t really have those short guys like that. I’m just looking forward to the challenge, and ready to get to it.”
If the Vikings have to call on Kearse on Sunday, he won’t have many times where he has to cover a Packers receiver by himself. The Vikings’ pattern-matching scheme means he will often have help from other defenders, and it will be incumbent upon him to use it effectively.
“Not very often is he going to be by himself on a guy,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to get help from either the inside or the outside or wherever it is. I think understanding leverage is the best part about that, where his help is.”
And if he is called on, Kearse can try and use his most unique trait to his advantage.
“I think, usually if he gets his hands on guys, he’s pretty good, so that’s part of it — using his length in that position,” Zimmer said. “That’s probably his strength and that’s where he needs to continue to do.”