This is the eighth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: SAFETIES
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Harrison Smith (second year) and Jamarca Sanford (fifth year)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Brandan Bishop, *Robert Blanton, Darius Eubanks, *Mistral Raymond, *Andrew Sendejo
The breakdown: Smith made a big impact as a rookie on the back end of Minnesota’s defense. He was a big hitter and showed a knack for big plays. He had 104 tackles, one sack, three interceptions — two returned for touchdowns — and 11 pass deflections, demonstrating the all-around ability against the run and pass the Vikings hoped for when they traded back into the first round to select Smith. He also provided a physical element that made receivers think twice while going over the middle. Smith has the ability to possibly turn into one of the league’s best safeties and will be counted on even more in Minnesota in his second season. Smith is a heady player and wasn’t beaten often for big plays, despite his aggressiveness as a rookie. And coaches have talked this summer about Smith’s confidence continuing to rise as he becomes one of the leaders in the secondary and a go-to leader for the younger players.
Smith started from Week 1 last year, leaving Raymond and Sanford battling for the other starting spot. Raymond, the younger player with more range, earned the starting job and started three games. But the two also shared time during the opening weeks of the season and Sanford became the starter when Raymond missed six weeks with an ankle injury. Sanford played well and Raymond didn’t get his starting spot back. He had 66 tackles and proved a big-play element with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Because of his play, Sanford likely has the edge on the starting spot over Raymond heading into camp, but Raymond will get the chance to push for a starting position. Blanton didn’t play much as a rookie while making the move from college cornerback to NFL safety. Minnesota still hopes he can develop into a possible starter or at least contribute on defense and special teams. Sanford is one of the Vikings’ top special teams players and Sendejo’s spot on the roster is more for his work on special teams.
Best position battle: Raymond was given the starting spot after winning the training camp battle last season, but Sanford likely will emerge as the starter this season. Sanford, still only 27, was re-signed for two years this offseason and has started the majority of the past two seasons and likely will end up the starter again. The final starting spot might be the only training camp battle to watch. Raymond should stick even if he’s not the starter. Minnesota won’t give up on Blanton after one season. If the Vikings keep five safeties, as they did last season, it’s likely to be the same five. Bishop and Eubanks are two undrafted rookie free agents, and maybe could steal away Sendejo’s spot but it’s unlikely. Sanford, if he can continue his progress, should come away as the starter along with Smith.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Packers; 4. Lions. After one season, Smith might already be the division’s best safety and Jamarca Sanford stands out well among some of the NFC North’s other safeties. Chicago’s tandem of Major Wright and Chris Conte will start together for the third straight season. Wright has shown playmaking ability. Conte is steady, but unspectacular. Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett is right with Smith as the best safeties in the NFC North, but there is some unknown next to Burnett still in M.D. Jennings. Jennings started 10 games last season and had 52 tackles and one interception. Green Bay also has Jerron McMillian, a surprise fourth-round pick in 2012. Detroit moved to improve its secondary play by signing Glover Quin. Quin was one of the better safeties in free agency, but he’s not a star. The Lions also retained Louis Delmas, who was a free agent. The duo gives Detroit the chance to have a solid safety group.
Frazier says of Smith: “The confidence, you can see that and that would be the obvious difference from your rookie year to your second year, but his ability now to understand our defense, the ins and outs, the whys and the why-nots of what we do. Now having him to help some of the guys that are in backup roles and trying to almost be an assistant coach in some ways, which you need out of the safety position. I think Jamarca Sanford helps him with that but a lot of growth from a confidence standpoint.”