EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When the Minnesota Vikings traded back into the end of the first round of April’s NFL draft to select Harrison Smith, it was widely believed the team had a certain starter at one of its two safety positions.
Minnesota gave up its early second-round pick and a fourth-round slot to ensure it wouldn’t miss the change to acquire Smith. A day later, coach Leslie Frazier cautiously said Smith would be “penciled” into the starting lineup. Frazier wasn’t marking anything in pen, but pencil sounded pretty promising.
Yet, through two weeks of organized team activities, the safeties practicing with the first team were the same combination who ended last season as starters. Smith, working with the second team, was behind Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford.
Taken with the 29th overall pick out of Notre Dame, Smith finally started getting first-team reps this past week. But it wasn’t an ascension to the starting spot as much as it was the coaches trying to see which players work best together.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Frazier said. “Begin to rotate guys and match a little bit just to see how they would gel together. We’ll continue to do it. We’ve got quite a bit of time before we get to that first game, but we’re going to mix and see how guys work together and develop some chemistry in that secondary, and that’s a part of what happened today.”
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There is a lot to work out before the Sept. 9 season opener. Will Smith be ready to start initially as a rookie? How much has Raymond improved in his second season? Can Sanford hold off the younger players and keep his starting spot? How will Robert Blanton, the fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame, do in his transition from cornerback to safety?
All of the questions will need to be answered, but Smith’s role will certainly be the most scrutinized. He seemed the perfect fit for Minnesota, a versatile talent coming to a team in dire need of upgrades in the secondary. Smith is considered a strong tackler and also has the coverage ability to play deep in the Vikings’ Cover-2 system.
But his transition to the NFL is taking some time. Smith admits to making “plenty” of mistakes in the early going. He said he isn’t concerned with who is lining up as the starter. And really, in June, the depth chart serves only as fodder and a look at who might be leading any potential competitions. So, Smith is worrying more about learning the defense than earning a starting spot.
“As an overview, I feel pretty confident in the calls and stuff like that,” Smith said. “It’s the details that make you a good player, a great player. That’s what I need to get better at. And then just learning formations better, learning what offenses like to do in certain situations, being a situational player. All that stuff adds up to being a great player.”
Smith caught Frazier’s attention during Tuesday’s OTAs.
“I saw a play today where he really got angry,” Frazier said. “He got pretty fired up, and you kind of need that out of your defensive backs. You need them to have a little something about them. It was good to see.”
Smith has plenty of competition. Frazier said he needs to see Sanford in pads and how he is able to make tackles in the open field and his range in pass coverage. Raymond has had a full offseason in the team’s program and surely will be better for it.
And there still is the idea of having two Notre Dame rookies starting together. It might happen one day, but it doesn’t sound as if that day is coming soon. Blanton is still trying to make the switch from college cornerback to NFL safety. Frazier hopes he will contend for a starting spot and isn’t ready to concede this as a development season for Blanton, but the coach isn’t sure when the rookie will be ready.
“There are some things you look at and you just know will take a little bit of time, just getting accustomed to being out in space,’ Frazier said. “That’s different for him — when you’re lined up, and you have the sideline as like a 12th man. You don’t have that at safety, and the angles are all different. That takes time. And he’s getting it, but we’ve got to continue to expose him to more situations, and we’re doing that. I think he’ll get it. It’s just a matter of how fast will it come. Will it be before the Jacksonville game or will it be a little bit after that?”
Will Smith be ready for Jacksonville in the season opener? Now that he’s had some reps with the starters, is he closer to taking hold of the position? If he is, he’s said he won’t change the way he plays.
“You’ve got to play like you’re never going to arrive,” Smith said. “No matter how good I get or what I progress to, there will always something to be better at. So, there’s really no end point. It’s just getting better every day.”