The Problem at Safety
Image courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY SportsDespite Mike Zimmer's reputation as a head coach, the Vikings, who were one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL last year, may not recover as well as one would hope. The pass defense ranked 30th in passer rating allowed and the same in adjusted net yards per attempt. Football Outsiders ranked it 30th in pass defense DVOA as well.
Those statistics aren't news for Vikings fans, and there are ways to continue stressing the importance of the passing defense, but there's no question that the priority for this next season, quarterback aside, was to fix the defense, and in particular make sure that they couldn't get beaten through the air as thoroughly and consistently as they did.
There were a number of culprits, of course. Per Pro Football Focus, the linebackers combined to give up ten of the 37 touchdowns they allowed (though they did provide five interceptions) and the cornerbacks gave up 18 more (half of them coming from Chris Cook).
The final nine, of course, came from the safeties. Given the role that safeties play, that's actually not too bad (it's not good, either). It wasn't an elite performance, especially with Harrison Smith out for a big part of the season, but the safeties ranked 21st in passer rating allowed and gave up the 22nd fewest touchdowns.
Compared to giving up the second-most touchdowns or seventh-worst passer rating (linebackers), or giving up the most touchdowns and second-worst passer rating (cornerbacks), safety was a spot of relative stability.
Heading into this offseason, fixing the weaknesses didn't mean ignoring the safeties, but it wasn't a big priority in terms of pass defense as much as cornerback and linebacker were.
But while the Vikings weren't looking, the safety position degraded. What looked to be a healthy safety competition fell flat after the Vikings cut players who were competing for a starting spot, with Chris Crocker, Kurt Coleman and Jamarca Sanford off the team.
The presumed starter, Robert Blanton, hasn’t looked good in training camp or in the preseason, in the rare opportunities he’s had when recovering from injury. Like his backup, Andrew Sendejo, he’s missed most of camp and two preseason games, with only 75 snaps to show for it.
That by itself is not an extraordinary worry, given that starting players often do not take many preseason reps (and in the case of Adrian Peterson, none at all), but when the limited opportunities a presumed starter has had to prove himself have fallen flat, it’s a real worry.
Blanton had only had 128 snaps at safety in 2013 (the rest at cornerback) and 53 snaps the year before. Again, it isn’t a huge issue by itself; every year the league has at least one player convert from cornerback to safety pretty successfully and the transition doesn’t present an enormous threat.
The bigger issue is that Blanton has not looked good when he’s had time at safety. Though he looked great at the end of 2013, all of those snaps were at slot cornerback, and his issues in pass coverage are becoming more and more apparent. While a decent run defender, it won’t fix the massive issues the Vikings have had in pass defense, especially as they’ll be up against quarterbacks at the beginning of the year who can really test safeties in Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Matt Stafford is known to do it as well, and he’s right after them.
On the other hand, Antone Exum has looked good, and the Vikings haven’t named a starter yet. It may very well be Exum, who hadn’t taken a starting snap in the preseason yet. If that’s the case, it would represent a bold move by the coaching staff, although the feeling seems to be that they aren’t ready for him to play just quite yet.
The Vikings had a number of options after the cuts and training camp progressed. They didn’t necessarily need to keep Kurt Coleman or Chris Crocker (the first of whom looked more and more like his Philadelphia self and the second of whom was very slow) and an injury would have prevented Sanford from playing, but a number of safeties who would represent an upgrade or at least an opportunity were released by teams.
Both Chris Clemons and Danieal Manning were released by their respective clubs, and though Minnesota likely didn’t have a chance with Manning (who seemed dead-set on returning to Houston), they haven’t seemingly made any moves towards Clemons. They also could have gambled on converting Champ Bailey to safety, a tried-and-true tradition for aging cornerbacks.
Further, two promising young safeties from last year who looked good as rookies in 2013—Robert Lester and Don Jones—have larger, better resumes than either Andrew Sendejo or Robert Blanton at safety and were free for the taking.
Beyond that, a few surprising rookie cuts from the 2014 safety class exist, particularly Ed Reynolds and Craig Loston, who were well-touted safety prospects who didn’t happen to make their respective teams. Lester, Jones, Reynolds and Loston are all on practice squads and unlikely to be very good starters, but depth is just as important a question for the Vikings to answer as starting talent.
All four of the Vikings starters are coming off of injuries. Harrison Smith and Antone Exum are recovering from injuries sustained last year, and Sendejo and Blanton are dealing with injuries that took them out this offseason. While all are seemingly healthy, it’s difficult not to feel as if Sendejo and Blanton were rushed in order to get reps on the field (and Exum felt rushed to get on the field at Virginia Tech), and neither of them are likely at 100%.
More importantly, they all represent injury concerns when the safety group is already rail-thin. The Vikings may not have felt that Duke Ihenacho was a system fit or may even feel that Manning and Bailey are too old for a rebuilding team, but it’s difficult to believe that a young safety that has already shown potential without the injury concerns of the rest of the corps provides less value than a second fullback.