image courtesy of Vikings.com

Welcome to the latest installment of the Vikings Territory Training Camp Primer series focusing on Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, and the safeties.

Amidst all of the turnover throughout the Vikings roster from 2016 to 2017, the safety position has changed very little from where it was a year ago. The five men who will compete at training camp in 2017 were all in the same position a year ago.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be camp battles or important roles that need to be filled. The safety position’s significance is listed right there in its name — these players are the safety valve for the defense. If they screw up, it’s likely six points for the opposition.

We know what Harrison Smith brings to the table. We know what Andrew Sendejo brings to the table. But who will emerge as a reliable depth filler behind them?

TRAINING CAMP INVITES

Player Name2016 NFL TeamCollege AttendedNote
Harrison SmithMinnesotaNotre Dame2x Pro Bowler
Andrew SendejoMinnesotaRiceUndrafted in 2010
Anthony HarrisMinnesotaVirginiaUndrafted in 2015
Jayron KearseMinnesotaClemson7th Round Pick in 2016
Antone ExumMinnesotaVirginia Tech6th Round Pick in 2016
Jack TochoN/ANorth Carolina State7th Round Pick in 2017

CURRENT SITUATION

Mike Zimmer’s defense boasts one of the game’s best safeties in Harrison Smith. He is arguably Minnesota’s best defensive playmaker — which says quite a bit — while lining up from several different positions, whether in the box as a run-stuffer or in a single-high safety look playing center field. His starting spot is more certain than anybody’s on the roster.

Andrew Sendejo is entering his third season as Minnesota’s full-time starter next to Smith. After a roller-coaster 2015 campaign, Sendejo silenced critics with a rock solid 2016 season. He took more calculated risks and played the position more true to its namesake than he had in the past.

The safety position is a bit foggy behind Smith and Sendejo. Zimmer has historically kept four safeties on the roster, which means two roster spots are likely up for grabs in Mankato this year. Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse earned those spots a year ago, though they each have a completely different style of play.

Meanwhile, Antone Exum quietly re-emerges as a strong candidate to earn one of those spots in 2017 after injuries derailed his chances in 2016. Seventh-round pick Jack Tocho also has a strong case from the get-go due to his positional versatility; he’s able to line up at safety or cornerback, where he spent his career at North Carolina State.

ROSTER LOCKS

Harrison Smith: Duh. There’s a pretty strong case to be made for Harrison Smith as the best safety in football. He’s certainly the most versatile, possessing elite skills both against the run and in zone coverage. Plus, Smith is also a devastating blitzing option from the edge in Zimmer’s exotic third-down defensive looks. Though 2016 was his first season without an interception, he still made his presence known week-in and week-out.

Andrew Sendejo: Sendejo isn’t appreciated among the purple and gold faithful quite like he should be. The undrafted seventh-year man has endured the difficult path to becoming a regular NFL starter — through several seasons as a practice squad member and special teamer. In 2016, he took another step forward in his development as a player. Sendejo usually finds himself playing deep zone coverage, and the Vikings were rarely, if at all, beaten over the top in 2016. He’s no Earl Thomas, but he is at the very least a reliable starter next to a superstar.

ROSTER BUBBLE

Jayron Kearse: ‘The Terminator’ possesses the most star potential among all safeties not named Smith on the Vikings roster. His incredible 6’4″ frame and a thumping play style strike fear into opponents who try him over the middle. However, he made several mental mistakes when he was thrust into action in 2016. His most memorable blunder was the poor angle he took on Jordan Howard‘s 69-yard run in Minnesota’s Week 8 loss to the Chicago Bears. Those types of blunders will need to disappear if he wants to ensure his roster spot in 2017.

Anthony Harris: Harris put together a strong camp a year ago to earn a roster spot and play sparingly in the 2016 season. As a niche coverage safety, Harris brings excellent range and center field ability in the zone defense. However, his slight frame makes him prone to getting wiped out of running plays completely.

Antone Exum: Exum seems to get lost in the shuffle of the safety discussion. Injuries forced him to miss most of 2016 and now enters 2017 on his last chance to make an impression before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Exum’s biggest obstacle in 2017 training camp will be finding a role and using it to make a name for himself. Kearse and Harris hold the advantage having won the roster spots a year ago, but Exum’s explosive athleticism will always give him a chance.

Jack Tocho: The rookie out of North Carolina State is already turning heads with a strong cerebral game and impressive ball skills, which were on display in his collegiate career. Tocho will need to show he has the consistent technique and run-stopping instincts if he plans on earning a roster spot as a safety.

BATTLE TO WATCH

Jayron Kearse v. Anthony Harris v. Antone Exum v. Jack Tocho

Finding some sort of reliable depth is at the top of the Vikings’ priority list when it comes to the safety position. The Smith-Sendejo starting duo is a Top-10 pairing in the NFL. However, the depth likely ranks at a much lower level. Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have historically kept four safeties on the roster, meaning two of these four players will earn roster spots. Who will step up?

Again, Kearse and Harris will be given a slight advantage as the incumbents. But both Exum and Tocho have their own unique abilities they can tailor to in order to make an impression on the coaching staff.

ROSTER PROJECTION

Free SafetyStrong Safety
Andrew SendejoHarrison Smith
Anthony HarrisJayron Kearse

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