Starting positions still up in the air at safety

BY foxsports • July 19, 2012

This is the eighth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 27 start of camp.

July 10: Quarterbacks  
July 11: Running backs and fullbacks  
July 12: Wide receivers 
July 13: Tight ends  
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans' guide to camp

TODAY'S POSITION: SAFETIES

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 4

Projected starters: Harrison Smith (rookie) and Mistral Raymond (second year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Robert Blanton, *Eric Frampton, *Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo.

The breakdown: Minnesota ended last season with Raymond and Sanford as the starters, a desperation point coaches probably never wanted to reach. Sanford started all 15 games he played. Beside him, Husain Abdullah started the first nine games before a concussion sidelined him the rest of the season. Tyrell Johnson started three games before he was lost for the season with a hamstring injury. Raymond, who was considered raw and needing development time, ended up starting five games.

The Vikings vowed to improve their depth in the offseason, and safety was one of the spots they needed to focus on. Enter former Notre Dame teammates Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton. Minnesota pulled a minor surprise on the first night of the draft by trading back into the first round to nab Smith, the all-around talent who has good size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) and should fit well into Minnesota's Cover 2 system. He should be given every chance to win a starting spot. Blanton, a fifth-round pick, also has good size, but he doesn't have elite speed. The Vikings are having the college cornerback transition to safety, where his intelligence and cover ability will still serve him well while not getting beat by the speedier receivers on the outside. If Blanton can make the transition and Smith proves worthy of his lofty draft slot, the former Irish teammates could be playing next to each other for a long time in Minnesota.

Blanton is more of a developmental project at this time, which means a starting spot is open. Sanford is the incumbent, but he struggled mightily at times last season, especially in pass coverage. He will have to show the ability to cover the deep half of the field. Coach Leslie Frazier said he also must improve his open-field tackling. If he can't win a starting spot, Sanford could still be a valuable special teams player, but if keeping a roster spot comes down solely to special teams, Frampton has been a special teams ace the past few seasons. Frampton has rarely played in the base defense, though. Both could make the roster, with Frampton still concentrating on special teams and Sanford having the ability to play in the defense and on special teams.

Raymond found time in the lineup earlier than expected last season and had the anticipated growing pains, but the Vikings are interested in seeing how he can develop. Like the other 2011 rookies, Raymond was greatly affected by the lockout and lack of a full offseason program. The second-year players should be able to make strides after training all offseason and receiving important coaching during the organized team activities and minicamp. That could lead to a different Raymond this season, one who could earn a starting spot.

Best position battle: In reality, every starting spot and roster spot at this position is up for grabs. But Smith seems like a lock to land one starting role. The second starting spot could come down to Raymond and Sanford. Sanford was a full-time starter last year for the first time in his career and struggled in pass defense. Raymond has good range and made an interception at Washington that broke the Vikings' streak of nine games without an interception. Sanford had his only two interceptions in one game before the streak started. Raymond has youth and his status as a sixth-round draft pick last year on his side and Minnesota could give him the chance to develop into the long-term starter. Blanton, once he becomes more comfortable making the move from cornerback, could replace either of them later in the season.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings. Minnesota has the youngest and most inexperienced group, and even if Smith plays to his first-round potential there are just too many question marks to challenge any of the other teams in the division. Green Bay might have had the best set of starters and could be adding more punch. Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah are the likely starters, and the Packers are preparing for cornerback Charles Woodson to spend part of  his time at safety. Woodson led the league with seven interceptions last season; Peprah had five and Burnett three. Detroit has Louis Delmas, a very good, all-around safety, and pairs him with Amari Spievey. Chicago is slated to start Major Wright and Chris Conte -- third-round picks in 2010 and 2011, respectively -- two young players with some potential.

Defensive coordinator Alan Williams says: "I'm still in the evaluation process and (defensive backs coach Joe Woods) is still in that same process, evaluating the guys and seeing who can play. It takes time to figure out who a guy is. We don't have a lot of guys with a ton of experience, so what we're trying to do is put them in situation and see how they function, see how they practice, see if they can be consistent and then we'll make some decisions down the road. But right now, it's just an evaluation process."
 
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