Watching T.J. Ward sack Teddy Bridgewater and hand the Vikings their second loss of the season last week, I couldn’t help but wonder — “Why don’t the Vikings have an impact strong safety on their roster?”.
There’s Harrison Smith, but he can’t be in two spots at once. The Vikings’ free safety is already making plays against the run and in coverage, most notably when he intercepted Peyton Manning last week and tackled Danny Woodhead with one arm the week before. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s been Minnesota’s most impressive defender, and he’s close to taking the title of the league’s best safety.
But every Batman needs his Robin, and Smith is operating a one-man show through four games this season. Veteran special teams ace and muscle-bound defensive back Andrew Sendejo opened Week 1 as the starter opposite Smith, but was replaced by Robert Blanton halfway into the Vikings’ embarrassing loss in San Fran…er, Santa Clara.
After the game, head coach Mike Zimmer addressed Sendejo’s start, which came as a surprise to many who expected Blanton — the team’s most tenured starter in 2014 — to retain his position next to Smith.
“It’s kind of a fluid situation right there. I’m just trying to [have] somebody give me confidence in that position,” he said. “Somebody I feel like is going to make the safe play and not the spectacular play. I don’t really care about making the spectacular play, I want guys to make the safe plays.”
Enter Antone Exum Jr., the second-year safety out of Virginia whose massive muscles are only outshined by his inability to learn the defense. A day after the loss to the 49ers, Zimmer said Exum would have a chance to start “if he could ever figure out what to do,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Sendejo remained the starter through Week 3, until a knee injury forced him to miss last week’s game against the Broncos.
Blanton filled the void Week 4, but his presence hardly made a difference in Denver. He was often in the correct spot on the field, but missed tackles because of his tendency to use his shoulders, not his arms when bringing down ballcarriers. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took advantage, targeting Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas deep across the middle throughout the game, and the Vikings paid for his (among other players’) mistakes, ultimately losing the game 23-20.
Where does Vikings general manager Rick Spielman go from here? This past offseason, the Vikings’ front office targeted Rahim Moore and Devin McCourty in free agency, but left the negotiating period without deals in place. Their inability to add new talent before the season left the Vikings with an unchanged crop of players at the position — making personnel decisions even more difficult when meaningful football began in September.
Now, Mike Zimmer is riding the carousel of strong safeties, mixing-and-matching his available options each week. He has Sendejo, the smart, yet reckless safety who nearly beheaded Xavier Rhodes against the Chargers. Or, Blanton, the veteran who too often lets his physical limitations overshadow his knowledge of the scheme. And Exum Jr., who flashed his playmaking ability in the preseason, but still hasn’t done enough to impress his head coach. Moving forward, Zimmer’s best bet would be to stick with Blanton — he started 13 of the 15 games he played in 2014, and he’s shown enough in the past to warrant the trust from Zimmer.
Long-term, though, the Vikings must target a strong safety in the draft. Exum Jr. has all of the physical attributes to play in the NFL, but he’s far from setting foot on the field for the Vikings. As one of Zimmer’s first draft picks, he should be entrenched in the battle for the starting role, yet, remains in the proverbial doghouse.
Stuck with their decision to avoid the intense competition that is free agency, Rick Spielman and the Vikings must wait until next year’s draft to fill one of their most pressing needs. Fortunately, the class will be loaded with talent at the position — two strong safeties sit in the top 30 of Matt Miller’s Top-100 prospects. But that’s 12 games and another four months away; can the Vikings survive on their path to the 2015 playoffs?