A quick glance at the strong safety situation during the first day of Vikings minicamp Tuesday revealed a familiar group.
Robert Blanton. Antone Exum. Andrew Sendejo. Despite a few low-risk acquisitions during free agency and with undrafted free agents, the answer to the biggest question on defense — who will play next to free safety Harrison Smith? — likely will be one of those three players.
That became more evident before the team stepped on the field. The Vikings released veteran safety Taylor Mays, who played under coach Mike Zimmer for three seasons when Zimmer served as Bengals defensive coordinator.
And so Blanton got reps with Smith with the first team while Exum and Sendejo were paired on the second team. Undrafted rookie Anthony Harris and cornerback Shaun Prater were used as third-team safeties.
It’s too early to give Blanton the nod at the position. Zimmer made it clear the starter will be determined during the preseason once he gets a better look at each player in pads.
“The things that happen when they’re not playing the team they see every single day, those are much better evaluations because the checks happen faster, the different types of plays happen faster,” Zimmer said. “I would not read too much into who’s where right at this particular point, unless it’s Teddy [Bridgewater] or Adrian [Peterson] probably.”
Blanton has the most experience of the group. By default, he won the starting job last year. He missed a significant portion of training camp because of a hamstring injury, but there wasn’t another safety on the roster that made a lasting impression during his absence. The Vikings brought in competition during training camp by signing 34-year-old Chris Crocker, who spent seven years in Zimmer’s scheme with the Falcons and Bengals. But Crocker was among the team’s final cuts after the preseason.
Blanton started 13 games last year, playing in 15 games total, and received 969 snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I got some experience in playing the position and knowing what the coaches want,” Blanton said. “It allows you to be a better player.”
He didn’t finish the season as the starter, however. Sendejo had only 149 snaps, but he started the final three games after Blanton suffered a left leg injury in Week 14 against the Jets. He played so well that even after Blanton was healthy enough to suit up for the final two games, Sendejo finished the season as the starter.
The only safety of the trio in contention that didn’t start last year was Exum, who had only 16 snaps on defense last year as a rookie. Although Exum’s main role was on special teams, he has received high praise this offseason.
The Vikings opted not to select a safety with one of their 10 picks in this year’s NFL draft. Instead, General Manager Rick Spielman noted after the draft how pleased he was with Exum, the former Virginia Tech cornerback, for his transition to safety over the past year. Mays clearly didn’t impress the team during organized team activities; said Zimmer of Mays’ dismissal, “It wasn’t working out.”
Meanwhile, Exum feels he’s coming off the best offseason in his life with the way he’s improved physically and mentally.
“I’m progressing well,” Exum said. “That’s been the challenge for myself this offseason just to limit the mistakes out here and be as consistent as I can be. I’m just playing faster because my head isn’t tied to my feet. So I have a better understanding of the playbook and the defense.”
It still will be more than two months before Zimmer settles on a starter. Until then, Blanton, Exum and Sendejo all will get a shot to prove why they deserve to play alongside Smith on Week 1.
It’s the same names fighting for the same opportunity. And the Vikings are hoping for a more definitive resolution.