The breakdown: Prepare for some possible turnover even though Minnesota returns its incumbent starters as well as the main backups from last season. While Sanford is penciled in as a starter, he missed a lot of valuable time during the offseason program with a leg injury. Reporters weren’t really able to see how he hits new coach Mike Zimmer’s defense or how the depth chart might shake out, at least during the summer. Andrew Sendejo also missed time, which meant Robert Blanton took most of the first-team repetitions during the offseason workouts.
The Vikings have a strong starting point at the position with Smith, though. An all-around, playmaking safety, Smith showed his value again last year by his absence. He missed eight games with a toe injury, robbing the secondary of its most impactful player. In two seasons, Smith has proved the team’s decision to move up into the first round to draft him was a wise move. He’s a true difference-maker on the back end for Minnesota and has the potential to develop into one of the league’s better safeties.
Despite playing just eight games last year, Smith was tied for fifth on the team with 58 tackles. He had two interceptions, which were just one off the team lead. Smith has 14 pass deflections in 24 career games and five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Smith’s partner in the backfield is an uncertainty. Sanford has started much of the past three seasons, but the roles could be changing a bit with Zimmer. One thing that is known is that Zimmer prefers to have coverage ability with his safeties. Coverage has never been Sanford’s strong suit. Sanford, aside from being a strong special teams’ player, likes to come up in run support, is willing to lay big hits and he finished third on the team with 75 tackles last season.
The curious part of Blanton receiving most of the first-team reps during the summer is he has experience in coverage. He was a cornerback in college — where he played in the same secondary as Smith — and also returned to the position a bit last season for the Vikings when injuries hit. Exum, the sixth-round draft pick in May, is similar, having played cornerback and safety at Virginia Tech.
Coleman is an experienced starter in the NFL and a quality special teams player. Sendejo had been mostly a special teamer in his career until Smith’s injury gave him a chance to play on defense last season. Raymond might have his last opportunity to make an impact. A sixth-round draft pick in 2011, Raymond became a starter as a rookie and came back with the job in his second season, only to be injured and eventually give way to Sanford full-time.
When it comes to roster spots, special teams is often the separator. Sanford, Sendejo and Coleman have all been important special teams contributors in their careers.
Best position battle: Aside from Smith, there’s likely competition from the rest of the group to simply make the roster. But who lines up next to Smith as a starter will be the most interesting aspect of training camp when it comes to the safeties. Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can go a few different directions.
There’s the coverage aspect of Blanton and Exum, who both have youth on their side as well as being on their first NFL contracts. There’s the experience factor with Sanford and Coleman. Those are likely the decisions Minnesota will weigh in training camp.
Blanton appeared to have an edge during the summer while Sanford was out. Coleman worked in with the second-team most often as the coaches mixed and matched trying to see different combinations and see how players worked together. Exum is likely looking at some development time.
Sanford is the holdover and his absence from offseason workouts means Zimmer hasn’t really shown his hand in how he sees Sanford or if the veteran is a fit for the defense. For as much as he is experienced, he’s a wild card when it comes to the competition.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Lions; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4. Bears. Smith might be the best safety in the division, but the uncertainty next to him gives Detroit a slight edge here. The Lions made the move to add Glover Quin last year and he was an immediate upgrade at safety.
Detroit is trying again. The Lions received solid play from both safeties last season, but Louis Delmas was released in a salary-cap move and the team signed James Ihedigbo from Baltimore. Quin and Ihedigbo should again provide Detroit with strong, if unspectacular, overall play.
In some ways, Green Bay is similar to the Vikings. The Packers believe they have one safety to rely on in Morgan Burnett and they are trying to see what sticks on the other side. Micah Hyde, a revelation as a rookie fifth-round draft pick last season, is slated to start but will be moved around. Hyde might be a safety in the base defense, but slide to the inside cornerback in the nickel.
If Hyde plays cornerback, safety is opened up for this year’s first-round draft pick, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama. Clinton-Dix was considered one of the top safeties in the draft, an all-around player who can play in coverage and support the run.
The Bears are also trying to find a way, any way, to upgrade. Chicago simply had a poor starting unit last year with Chris Conte and Major Wright. Conte remains, while Wright signed with Tampa Bay. And Conte is going to get competition. The Bears signed Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings (from Green Bay), Adrian Wilson and Danny McCray in the offseason and drafted Brock Vereen, an athletic star at the Scouting Combine, in the fourth round.
Vereen, a former University of Minnesota player, might just be able to force his way into a big role as a rookie. Mundy, who had 77 tackles and one interception last season, arrives after one season with the New York Giants and likely will start at one spot, with Conte having the early edge at the other.