FREE AGENCY PRIMER: The Safeties
Harrison Smith is essentially Han Solo. He roams the universe of Minnesota’s secondary like a scoundrel looking to blast his way into the action, capable of some very sly thievery, and is the most popular cast member when it comes to the female fanatics.
Han Solo is one of the most iconic characters in film history, but that wouldn’t be so if he were regularly sharing the screen with some random rebel trooper in every battle. Instead, it is the chemistry that Han shares with a Wookie that makes for pure movie magic.
And that is why many Vikings fans are interested in the options that exist at the safety position this offseason. They know that Andrew Sendejo was improved last season, they know there are a couple of promising young players behind him, but they also know that they’d love to see the Vikings finally cast an authentic Chewbacca next to their Han Solo to take the Vikings defense into hyperdrive.
Harrison Smith got his extension. Andrew Sendejo beat out veteran Michael Griffin for the starting job. Rookie Jayron Kearse had an impressive preseason and produced on special teams.
The 2016 injury plague didn’t leave the safety position untouched, but they were overall an impressive group; although, perhaps, a little disappointing at times.
According to ESPN, Harrison Smith was second on the team with 91 tackles. He had two sacks, two defended passes, and a fumble recovery. While his stat line didn’t feature as many splash plays as in past seasons, observers know that Smith is the centerpiece of Mike Zimmer’s defense and is an imminent threat at all times.
Sendejo was fifth on the team with 69 tackles. He had half a sack; four defended passes, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. Anthony Harris, the primary backup during injury scenarios, notched 41 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Jayron Kearse looks the part of an NFL safety, but he also looked plenty lost at times as a rookie, and progressing this offseason will be crucial for him as he tries to climb the depth chart.
The level of play from Andrew Sendejo matched the level of pay raise he received from the Vikings front office, which was a pleasant surprise to many Vikings faithful. The extension the Vikings gave him lasts through 2019 in theory, but in reality, 2016 was the only season in which they were married to him.
He is set to cost them $3 million in cap space in 2017, but nothing from this point forward is guaranteed for Sendejo, and the team can cut him loose at any time without worrying about dead cap figures. There is no indication that the Vikings are anything other than pleased with Sendejo, but the particulars of his contract are certainly worth keeping in mind.
Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, and Cedric Thompson each represent inexpensive developmental and depth players waiting in the wings behind Sendejo. None bring any pressing contractual concerns to the table, and each will have to compete for their jobs during training camp if the Vikings bring in any competition this offseason.
Harrison Smith, a star that is in no danger of leaving, is under contract until 2021 and will count as $7.5 million again the salary cap next season.
Perhaps the most unusual situation at this position has to do with Antone Exum. Exum is entering his contract year, has a minimal cost and minimal dead cap worries, while never quite fitting into Mike Zimmer’s defense in a meaningful way.
The Vikings enter free agency with absolutely none of their safeties liable to leave if they don’t want them to. For the team, this is a great position to be in, as they don’t have to worry about getting worse (on paper) than they were last year but can still go window shopping for upgrades.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
|Player||Position||Age||Team||Salary Cap (Average)|
ERIC BERRY: One of the NFL’s best safeties and best people. This guy would certainly qualify as a “Chewbacca” type addition as described above, but the thought of the Vikings landing him also feels like a pipe dream and improbable luxury.
QUINTIN DEMPS: No other free agent safety can boast six interceptions last season like Demps can. At age 32, however, he could prove to be quite affordable despite the new productivity. This could be a sneaky name to keep an eye on as free agency unfolds.
D.J. SWEARINGER: After flunking out in Houston, Swearinger played quite well for Arizona and could be an excellent bargain for some team if the Cardinals let him leave the desert. He’s only 25 years old and could very well have even better years ahead of him.
MICAH HYDE: Time will tell if the Vikings are in need of a new return specialist (keep an eye out for our upcoming free agency primer on wideouts), but if they do, then Micah Hyde could be an interesting name to keep an eye on. Stealing him from Green Bay, providing depth at safety, getting a decent returner; that could be interesting.
TONY JEFFERSON: Another very young Cardinal safety that has played very well lately. He’ll likely command big money this March, probably too much for the Vikings to even be mentioned, but he might be the second best safety of this group (to Berry).
DURON HARMON: A young guy that knows the “Patriot Way” and has the rings to prove it. In New England, however, he has been stuck behind star safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. That could make him an intriguing option for teams going out shopping for free agents, as his potential seems to be more than his backup status lets on.
As much as I’d like to see Harrison Smith paired up with a stellar partner before he’s old and gray, it seems like a lot to ask in an offseason with so much potential drama at other positions. The Vikings aren’t expected to lose any talent at the safety position unless they do so willingly, so I’m not sure Rick Spielman takes any risks here despite the potential reward. Oh, and Han Solo is eating up a lot of cap space, so it is hard to imagine the front office breaking the bank for another safety.
Instead, I would expect to see Spielman proceed by bringing in lower level free agents and later round draft picks to compete with the likes of Exum this summer. Anything more would be a pleasant surprise, but a surprise none-the-less.