Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we will break down the safety position.
The final position battle to be won — arguably by default — at the end of training camp this past summer was the other safety spot next to Harrison Smith. The Vikings tried a few different players there, including veteran signees Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman, but head coach Mike Zimmer opted to go with Robert Blanton, despite Blanton missing a chunk of camp with an injury.
While one usually only noticed Blanton when he was getting trucked by a big running back like Eddie Lacy in the open field, Smith was impossible to miss. The third-year safety thrived in Zimmer’s scheme as a do-it-all weapon, blitzing, covering and dropping into zones. He was the only NFL defensive back with at least five interceptions and three sacks, and he added 93 tackles. Smith should have been playing in the Pro Bowl two days ago, but he did not get an invite.
Back to Blanton, the third-year safety suffered a leg injury in Week 14 and missed one game. When he returned to the lineup in Week 16, the Vikings instead started Andrew Sendejo next to Smith.
Heading into this offseason, that second starting safety spot is once again in flux for the Vikings.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Smith thrived under Zimmer and is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s very best safeties, if he isn’t there already. Smith’s play was a major factor in the Vikings improving to seventh in the NFL in pass defense last season, and he should only get better in 2015 now that he and his teammates are more comfortable with Zimmer’s scheme. But first, the Vikings have decisions to make with Smith. Picking up his fifth-year option for 2016 is a no-brainer, and signing him to a contract extension before the 2015 season would seem to be a wise move.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings were able to get by with Blanton and then Sendejo in the starting lineup, but this remains a position that they can upgrade. More on that in a minute.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Smith was one of the league’s highest graded safeties, per their grading, with a plus-17.9 grade. Blanton was surprisingly a plus-8.8, curious because the Vikings benched him and all. Sendejo was a plus-2.7 and rookie Antone Exum was a plus-0.2 in limited action.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: seven — team-leading tackles for a loss (not including sacks) for Smith.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: The Vikings have a young group of safeties who are all 27 or under. Sendejo is the only one who is not on his rookie deal anymore, but he is still under contract for 2015. So all of these guys are safe — at least until final roster cuts at the end of the preseason.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Pretty high. I’m sure the Vikings can do worse than Blanton or Sendejo (or Exum, who remains an unknown at this point) next to Smith, but they can also do a lot better. Finding a rangy safety to pair with Smith would allow them to keep him closer to the line, where he can cause problems as a run defender and pass rusher when he isn’t dropping into coverage. There are some intriguing (and perhaps expensive) options scheduled to reach free agency, led by Devin McCourty and Rahim Moore. Drafting a safety is also an option, of course.