[NOTE FROM ADAM:  This is the second-to-last installation of my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings offseason.  The specialists will be the final segment, coming up soon.  You can click the links to view previous installments:  The Passers, The Runners, The Wide Outs, The Tight Ends, The Offensive Line, The Defensive Tackles, The Defensive Ends, The Linebackers, and The Cornerbacks.]

Members of the Vikings coaching staff and front office have made a habit of defending their safeties as fans and the media often pick on them for a lack of production.

This offseason, however, the team faces a crossroads at the position and we will find out just how much they really think of their current group of safeties. 

Let’s take a closer look.

LAST SEASON

I already detailed the poor production and awful rankings this Vikings pass defense had in last week’s segment on cornerbacks, and you can click here if you need a refresher, but I won’t risk boring you by being repetitive.  Let’s just cut to the chase and say the Vikings depth chart at safety had a lot to do with the awful season this secondary had.

The team’s best safety over the last two years has been Husain Abdullah by a long shot.  He got off to a pretty solid start in 2011, but struggled greatly down the stretch, and after nine starts his season ended due to concussion issues.  He ended up with 49 tackles, five defended passes, a sack, and an interception.  Devin Hester and Greg Jennings both gave him troubles in division rivalry games, he gave up four touchdowns in those nine games, and was flagged twice on special teams.

Jamarca Sanford got a chance in 2011 to show that he was worthy of being a fulltime starter, rather than just a special teams guy, and he was awful.  In 15 starts, Sanford had 75 tackles, five defended passes, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, and two interceptions that both came against Arizona.  Unfortunately, he also missed 10 tackles and gave up eight touchdowns.  Sanford plays aggressive football, but he did not display the indicts that would put that aggression to good use, and was most often just caught out of position.

Tyrell Johnson was in tight competition with Sanford for the starting role, but in the end it took injuries for Johnson to get his three starts, but he appeared in 11 games.  Despite his confidence and self promotion, Johnson failed to deliver production in his fourth season.  His season ended with him being credited for only 28 tackles and one lone pass defended.  He missed three tackles, had a number of interceptions bounce off his hands, was flagged twice for penalties, was charged with a DWI mid-season, and then tore his hamstring.  Once a promising prospect, Johnson was once again a liability when allowed to play.

Sixth round rookie Mistral Raymond was eventually forced into action because of the mounting injuries after being inactive for the first six games.  He played all the final 10 games and started the final five.  After a horrible debut, Raymond did flash some potential, but in the end he looked exactly like what you would expect from a late round rookie.  He ended the season with 22 tackles, three defended passes, an interception, and a fumble recovery.  He allowed three touchdowns, missed on four tackles, and had issues keeping himself hydrated which caused him to miss time with cramps.

Eric Frampton was the Vikings top special teams cover man and ended the season with 22 special teams tackles.  He also downed a punt at the one yard line to set up a safety against Oakland.  He missed two tackles and was flagged for two penalties.  It is telling, however, that despite all of the injuries that Frampton was never called upon to play on defense.  He is a decent special teams guy, but the coaching staff clearly views him as a special teamer only.

The Vikings signed Jarrad Page at the end of November and his previous experience led some of us to believe he would eventually have a larger role in the Vikings defense.  He appeared in only five games, however, and started none.  He only registered one tackle assist for the year.

Andrew Sandejo had three special teams tackles and Reggie Jones was a practice squad guy only.

CURRENT ROSTER

Like I said earlier, the Vikings are facing a bit of a crossroads at the safety position, which will lend itself towards an effort to upgrade if those upgrades are available.

Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson are both set to become unrestricted free agents in March.  If I am Rick Spielman, then Johnson is as good as gone but Abdullah presents an interesting choice to be made.  He had a solid 2010 season and played well at the start of 2011, which caused the Vikings to attempt contract extension talks which Abdullah shut down because he didn’t want it to become a distraction.

That might be one of the worst decisions Abdullah has ever made in his life.  His production was borderline terrible starting in week four and then chronic concussion issues had him questioning his own future as a football player, so it is only natural that the Vikings and every other team will have reservations about signing him to a long term contract.  I think the Vikings will reinitiate talks with Abdullah, but they are unlikely to make a huge investment into a guy that only a couple of months ago was talking like he’d rather be selling insurance for a living.

Jamarca Sanford is entering the final year of his contract and is set to make $565,000.  He is not the worst backup and special teams player in the world, but the Vikings cannot risk coming out of this offseason with him being a possible starter.

Eric Frampton signed a three year deal prior to the 2011 season and he will likely be back in his special teams role if he can survive the final cuts.  Jarrad Page is set to become an unrestricted free agent and I doubt the Vikings are overly interested in retaining him.  Mistral Raymond is entering his second year and seems likely to earn a roster spot unless he takes major steps backwards.

Reggie Jones is under contract and will have to battle for a spot on the roster or practice squad.  Andrew Sandejo is essentially in the same boat.

There has been some talk about both Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin changing to safety.  Griffin seems more likely to make the move, but even that seems like a last resort type of move.

FREE AGENCY

If the stars align just right, the Vikings could be in line to significantly upgrade the safety position via free agency, as there will be a number of talented players potentially available.

Atop my list is safety Michael Griffin(age 27) of the Titans who seems to be a model of consistency after some struggles plagued the early part of his career.  LaRon Landry (27) from Washington would bring both notoriety and injury concerns to the Vikings depleted depth chart.

Tyvon Branch (25) from the Raiders and Dwight Lowery (26) from the Jaguars could also be youthful options with considerable potential for upside.  Dashon Goldson (27) enjoyed some solid moments in 2011, but I think Leslie Frazier will be seeking someone a little more talented and consistent.

DRAFT PROSPECTS

Rick Spielman isn’t adverse to drafting larger cornerbacks and converting them to safety if that is the best option, so we can’t ignore that as a possibility.

When it comes to straight up safeties, however, this draft class leaves a lot to be desired.  It wouldn’t be a surprise in the slightest if one isn’t selected in the first round at all.

The most heralded prospect is Alabama’s strong safety Mark Barron.  Barron’s stock may take a hit after it has been learned that he has had offseason surgery due to a double hernia (hey he and I have something in common!) and he could very well be on the table when the Vikings select in the second round.  If he is, he will surely be a strong consideration for the Vikings who will have done their due diligence on his health.

Alabama will produce another of this year’s top safety prospects with Robert Lester possibly being selected in the same area as Barron.  Markelle Martin of Oklahoma State and Bacarri Rambo of Georgia are another couple of guys that could warrant consideration on day two.

With Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, and Eric Frampton already in the fold I’m not so sure that it will be worth taking fliers on safeties in the later rounds.  If the Vikings stay true to their board, however, I could imagine them selecting guys like Neiko Thorpe (Auburn), Tavon Wilson (Illinois), or Jerrell Young (South Florida) in later rounds.

OTHER POSSIBILITIES

The Vikings need to take an all-or-nothing approach at safety.  There are no high quality options available as restricted free agents, and giving up compensation to nab just another warm body would make no sense.

Conversely, it will make sense for Rick Spielman to pay careful attention to the trade market to make sure no steals can be had that would get him a solid upgrade.  Nothing immediately jumps out as an obvious trade option, but that could change between now and the preseason.

PROJECTIONS

The Vikings only have so much cap space to spend in 2012.  Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if they re-sign Husain Abdullah on the cheap as a starter and then try to find someone worthy of starting alongside him via free agency.

I would fully expect the Vikings to aggressively pursue a quality free agent option like Griffin, Branch or Landry should one or more of them become available in March.  Griffin seems like he would be the best, most obvious fit in this Vikings defense.

I would only expect a draft choice to be used on the safety position if there is an incredible value available in the first three rounds or so.  They need to aggressively upgrade the position now and don’t have the luxury of bringing in more developmental guys than they already have.  Keep your eye on Barron, as he will be strongly considered if he’s still available when the Vikings make their second round pick.

I think Tyrell Johnson and Jarrad Page are gone, so there will be some roster spots available.  Cedric Griffin might just get a legitimate shot to compete for one of those spots, too.

So, in the end, I think Abdullah and a free agent acquisition will be the starters going into training camp.  Sanford, Frampton, Raymond, and perhaps some rookie talent will be rounding out the competition to provide depth.