Heading into training camp, it’s tough to find an area where the Minnesota Vikings don’t have superb depth. Naturally, that makes some positions particularly difficult to project.
For my money, though, it’s hard to ignore the cornerback group that has a deep blend of youth, a dash of budding stars and a pinch of veteran leadership. In a league that has evolved into a pass-heavy game, having three and even four legitimate cornerbacks to protect against offense’s spread sets is vital. Well, the Vikings have five (six if you include Marcus Sherels), making it a strength heading into the 2016 season.
After breaking down every piece of game film from the 2015 season, rubbing elbows with people close to the organization and taking into account the trends of both coaching staff and front office moves, here is undoubtedly the most accurate 53-man projection you will find heading into Vikings training camp.
Teddy Bridgewater – The proverbial “third year” for Bridgewater who will be asked to be more aggressive and take advantage of nine-man boxes. Coaches should give him free rein of the offense, letting him check in and out of plays at will, instilling full confidence in one of the youngest at the position in the entire NFL. Teddy is poised to take the next step if put in a position to consistently chuck the rock and move away from the power running concept.
Shaun Hill – Dad bod in full effect here as Hill has the backup journeyman pedigree that helps balance out a young developing player ahead of him like yin and yang. Hill enters his 11th year in the league after starting 35 games of his own, making him a more than capable option in a pinch.
Taylor Heinicke – Of course it’d be nice to save a roster spot for one of the youthful and raw but talented draft picks. However, in today’s NFL game built around the quarterback, ignoring the opportunity to develop another signal caller just isn’t realistic. Heinicke could prove valuable down the road in a trade while offering emergency depth.
Running Backs (3)
Adrian Peterson – With 120 games played and 2,381 carries (don’t forget about the receptions and special teams touches, too) Peterson’s tire tread may finally be wearing thin. No matter, though, as he is still one of the most single dominating players in the game that demands the attention of weekly game plans from opposing coaches. In 2016 Peterson will continue to be the focal point of Norv Turner’s run-heavy offense. This is because, in combination with a defensively-sound head coach, Peterson gives the team the best chance to win while wearing down opponents and running out the clock.
Jerick McKinnon – With two seasons under his belt the fan base has grown to love this kid and the excitement he brings when the ball is in his hands. McKinnon carries an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average into the season from last year and turned into a legitimate threat in the passing game as well. With just 73 touches last season (#FlyTheJet) look for McKinnon to see more action as Turner creates sub-packages specific to his unique skill-set. He and Peterson will be arguably the best 1-2 punch at the position in the NFL, forming their own version of “Thunder and Lightning.”
Matt Asiata – He continues to get high praise from Turner as a dependable third-down option that will help chip in pass protection, and get the gritty yards in between the tackles when called upon. While there may be some intriguing options to beat him out during camp, his experience inside Turner’s system puts him at a huge advantage over others coming into camp new to the playbook.
Wide Receivers (6)
Stefon Diggs – After an outstanding rookie campaign Diggs must focus on continuing his progression doing everything possible to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Diggs will likely be depended on as the team’s most viable and consistent threat in the passing game. He carries an impressive set of skills with outstanding explosion, but because of his size he is best suited as the team’s number two wide receiver or inside in the slot.
Cordarrelle Patterson – “Do you believe in miracles!?” – Al Michaels voice. The story of “The Boy of Cried Wolf” tells us we shouldn’t, but here we are once again running to the belief that Patterson is indeed taking the next step in his progression as a true receiver. Coaches knew going into his career Patterson was ultra-raw and would be a long road to development. However, coach Zimmer has stated Patterson has fixed the nuances that plagued him in 2015 (lining up in wrong location, wrong depth) when he caught a measly two passes. If true, then Patterson’s ability to contribute into a passing game that ranked close to last in multiple categories would be a monster asset in making defenses pay for stacking up the box. Turner has had all offseason to find different ways to just get the ball in Patterson’s hands.
Jarius Wright – This guy might be the most underappreciated of the bunch. He may not catch a million balls or take the top off the defense, but in a league that puts three-receiver sets on the field more times than not, Wright has become a staple on crossing routes and more importantly helping convert critical third downs. Giving a young signal caller a consistent target on third-and-manageable provides loads of confidence for Bridgewater when forced to squeeze the ball into tight windows.
Laquon Treadwell – It’s tough for me to predict Treadwell having a ton of early success for two reasons. One, this coaching staff has proven to take the majority of their rookies along slowly, only plugging them in when forced due to injury or lack of depth. Two, this offense will continue to be a run-first unit, which means Treadwell won’t get tons of opportunities to shine like some of his fellow rookie peers. At just 20 years old, though, Treadwell’s potential is sky-high, and if we see even just a few flashes of his downfield playmaking ability and ultra-physical nature then we should all count that as a big win to build upon heading into 2017.
Adam Thielen – Who doesn’t love them some Thielen on their team? Mr. Do-It-All, Thielen, has done everything he’s ever been asked by coaches. Whether it’s running routes as the team’s number two receiver on running downs, making the tackle on a kickoff return, or blocking a punt and scoring the eventual touchdown, Thielen is close to a coach’s dream when it comes to work ethic, making him a near lock to make the final 53 once again.
Charles Johnson – CJ is easily the biggest wildcard of the group. What seemed to be a promising and budding future for Johnson turned into a mysterious deactivation the final four games; a huge red flag as the team was in dire need of any type of playmaking help in the passing game down the stretch. While the potential and room for growth are still there, don’t assume Johnson is a sure-thing to make the team inside a position group muddled with bodies.
Tight Ends (4)
Kyle Rudolph – Rudolph was supposed to pump a pulse back into his play-making persona when tight end guru Norv Turner arrived, but instead has only proved even moreso to be a player that was over-hyped by the media and fanbase while being unable to stay healthy for the full stretch. Strapped with a big body and large catch radius, I, for one, think he hasn’t gotten enough “jump ball” passes thrown his way during his tenure where his strengths would be maximized. Instead, they have used him on short, quick, crossing and comeback routes which only expose his lack of burst in and out of his cuts. Could this be the year Rudolph finally breaks out of his injury-plagued shell, or will he be stapled to the “middle of the pack” label he’s been attached to once again?
MyCole Pruitt – After being burned by the small school athletes loaded with college production like safety Tyrell Johnson (remember him?) Rick Spielman has stayed away from them more times than not. However, as of late, Spielman has been bucking that trend once the draft gets past the first 100 picks. Pruitt dominated the Division II level with loads of potential as a natural pass-catcher and could take another big step with the help of the tight end whisperer Norv Turner. Look for Pruitt to be used on the same shallow routes run by Rudolph last year, helping the team maximize his skill-set as a quick footed and highly athletic pass catcher.
Rhett Ellison – If we both had the time, I could make a legitimate case as to why Ellison was one of the most valuable pieces to the offensive puzzle last year (and it wouldn’t be hard). In a run-heavy scheme, Ellison looked like a sixth offensive lineman paving holes for the run game that ranked near tops in the entire league. Now, coming off a brutal patella tendon injury, the jury is still out on whether or not he can return in time for Week 1 while still possessing the same type of hard-nosed physicality.
David Morgan – According to PFF, Morgan was the best run-blocker in all of college football last season, making him a no brainer to backup Ellison while he recovers from his leg injury. Morgan is going to receive loads of valuable reps with Ellison on the sideline during camp, and early word has it is impressing the hell out of coaches with his ability to run routes and catch balls in the passing game. UTSA used Morgan all over the field, including in the backfield as a blocking fullback, in-line as a classic tight-end or out wide as a passing threat. That versatility makes the release of fullback Zach Line all the more likely, and Morgan’s future with the team very bright.
Offensive Line (9)
Matt Kalil – What more can I say that hasn’t already been said? The Vikings are paying him more than $11 million, yet Kalil hasn’t played up to his Pro Bowl level we once saw during his rookie season. Saying that, even if Kalil has an average-at-best season, the front office may find it difficult to move on from a capable left tackle in a league that is dried up with talent at the position.
Andre Smith – There was a legitimate reason the team brought in Smith to replace Phil Loadholt. Returning to full health and mobility from a torn Achilles for you or I would be difficult, but for a 330-pound man it’s nearly impossible (which led to Loadholt’s retirement). Smith has a solid pedigree and starting experience, which is the most you can ask for when forced to plug-and-play such an important position. Either way, Smith should provide immediate improvement from last year’s circus after Clemmings was forced to start far too early into his young yet raw career.
T.J. Clemmings – Coming out of college it was clear Clemmings was going to be a work in progress, but the tool-set was undeniable after the former defensive end bulked up and offered the size and quick feet needed to thrive at the tackle position. While the reps and playing time he saw will ultimately prove to be valuable, this year Clemmings will be able to (hopefully) sit back and learn from the veteran leaders on the team and develop from the bench where he is best suited at this point.
John Sullivan – Lower back injuries scare the hell out of me, especially to a player that plays a position that is so physically demanding at the base and root of their body (bend over, hike ball, explode up through stance, repeat 50 times). But, word on the street is Sully is on track to step back into his role as the team’s leader on the offensive line. Sully was never the strongest or biggest, but his football IQ separated him from the pack and always provided his quarterback a consistent friend.
Joe Berger – Tied for PFF’s best center (with Dallas Cowboys Travis Frederick) Berger wasn’t just the most underrated lineman on the roster, he was the most underrated player altogether. Even at 33 years old and a recovering John Sullivan breathing down his neck, the job may be Berger’s to lose.
Alex Boone – A mammoth of a man at 6’8” 300 pounds, Boone was a rock for the 49ers and a model of consistency starting 59 of his 60 games played. Free agency is for patching up glaring weak spots throughout the roster, and Spielman just turned one of the team’s biggest weakness into a strength. The addition kills two birds with one stone allowing Fusco to move back to right guard where he was at his best. Finally, and most importantly, Boone offers a bulldozing and gritty playing style at the position letting his toughness bleed through the shells and onto his teammates next to him (something that Zimmer and Tony Sparano made known they wanted to see from their offensive line). Boone looks reminiscent of former Viking Steve Hutchinson both in the huddle, and inside the locker room.
Mike Harris – Harris was originally brought in to be a swing tackle and helped soften the blow of losing Phil Loadholt in 2014 at right tackle. However, in 2015 Harris won the starting job at right guard and never looked back, eventually starting all 16 games and playing admirably as PFF’s 22nd-best blocking guard, showing stability equally versus the run and pass. Spielman later struck again, signing Harris for dirt cheap for a starting player at just under $2 million dollars to one of his famous one year “prove it” deals.
Brandon Fusco – I watched every single 2015 game back from the “All-22” coaches view and can say that no player regressed more than Fusco, who was a mess after moving from the right side to the left. At left guard Fusco gave up 54 total pressure, which was tied for most in the entire league after being PFF’s 11th best guard (on the right side mind you) just a year prior. Some will argue the switch to a far more elevated position was too much for Fusco while others will be quick to point out that his recovery from a torn pec could have played a factor. Regardless, after a lucrative contract extension not long ago Fusco moves back to the right side where he’s no longer guaranteed anything, and based on his play last year is heading into camp on the hot seat.
Willie Beavers – The biggest surprise draft pick in years under the Spielman regime given how early the team grabbed him compared to how poorly he tested during the predraft process. Not only did PFF rank Beavers as the 226th worst tackle in college football out 227 (you can’t make this stuff up), but I watched Beavers first hand in Mobile, Ala., where he was a mess all week. For me, this pick will be tied and glued to Tony Sparano during his tenure as the new offensive line coach. Sparano clearly had a big influence on the raw lineman from Western Michigan and saw potential that, to be frank, many others did not. The front office has already stated they will move Beavers inside to guard, which is a good start to his hopeful pro career where he can use his “strong first punch that dents people” more effectively on the inside. Bottom line, you don’t use a fourth-round pick on a player you don’t expect to play a role sooner or later. For my money, forget about the practice squad. Beavers is a lock for the final 53.
Defensive Ends (5)
Everson Griffen – After back-to-back double digit sack seasons Griffin has become a key cog inside Zimmer’s defense by attacking the quarterback in the backfield. A former fourth-round pick from USC with off-the-field issues, Griffen has overcome a former negative stigma and had made Spielman look like a genius as time goes on. A former gunner on special teams and linebacker in sub-packages under Leslie Frazier, Griffin is loaded with talent and physical ability, and is still developing into his own at just 28 years old.
Brian Robison – I, like many others, wrote off Robison after he turned 32 years old and handed in an average at best season in 2014. Heading into 2015 it only made sense that Zimmer would start to implement younger players with bigger upside; however, Robison made that a lot tougher as he was one of the most improved and surprising players to me on the tape. Robison was clearly more comfortable in Year 2 under Zimmer’s philosophy, and, vice versa, Zimmer knew how to utilize Robison to take advantage of his best assets. Robison was a staple in the trenches against the run and pass and has turned into a veteran leader among the entire team.
Danielle Hunter – One of the biggest surprises during 2015 draft weekend was Hunter, who came in as a wild youth (youngest player entering the league at just 20 years old) and raw athlete out of LSU. The plan was obvious from the get go, let Coach Zimmer mold this ball of clay into a pass-rushing force. However, no one ever thought the duo would work so well together at such a quick pace. While many people thought it would take two years at minimum to see any dividends, that time period was cut in half as Hunter saw heavy action in the rotation into the second half of the season. Hunter converted his playing time into production ending with six sacks in a limited role as a rookie. He will undoubtedly continue as a heavy rotational player on the defensive line as he gives Zimmer an abundance of different looks and schemes to work with inside the front seven, shuffling guys like Griffen and Robison inside on passing downs to maximize everyone’s talents. In fact, don’t be surprised to see Hunter drop back in coverage from time to time giving offenses even more looks to worry about, using his athleticism to plug up throwing lanes, much like we saw with Robison in Year 1 under Zimmer.
Stephen Weatherly – One of my favorite draft picks from the 2016 class when it comes to bang for the buck, Weatherly is high upside with little risk (seventh-round pick) and adds another young body to groom on the defensive line. Weatherly is in the mold of a Danielle Hunter Lite with his big frame, quick get off and ultra long arms he showed off when getting around the edge and into the backfield. At Vanderbilt, Weatherly showcased impressive skills as a traditional 4-3 defensive end until a new coaching staff was brought in and implemented a 3-4 system converting him to a standup linebacker. Weatherly will move back to his more natural spot with the Vikings with his hand in the dirt and hopefully develop into what the team and front office looked for in former third-rounder Scott Crichton.
Justin Trattou – A guy who, the more you study, is making it increasingly tough for coaches to cut from the final roster. In fact, Trattou was released at the beginning of the season and was eventually brought back in where he not only saw playing time, but made an outstanding play on Matthew Stafford coming down with his batted ball and interception. He doesn’t wow you with size or speed, but like most players under Zimmer, Trattou plays with heart and passion for the game, bringing a zest of energy to the group. Trattou will continue to be a special teams standout while rotating in late in games to provide a fresh pair of legs. He’ll be a solid depth player that will help on kickoffs and provide an insurance policy for an injured defensive end.
Defensive Tackles (4)
Linval Joseph – I won’t go into numbers because, like most at his position, Joseph’s job isn’t to pile up the statistics. His job is based on soaking up two and sometimes three blockers and freeing linebackers behind him to roam and finish plays. When being single blocked, Joseph is asked to do whatever he can to get into the backfield and blow the play up before it even happens, both of which he thrived at last season. Plain and simple, without Joseph this defense is a shell of its former self, looking weak in the running game and unable to set their opponents up in third and long situations on a consistent basis. This, along with many other things, were obvious when Joseph was out due to injury in the blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks (38-7) in Week 13. Keep Joseph healthy and the sky’s the limit once again for this defense.
Sharrif Floyd – He has yet to break out into the national spotlight due to inconsistency issues from injuries. However, inside Vikings circles, many are aware as to just how dominant Floyd can be when given the opportunities. I’ve watched countless hours of film of the past two seasons, and no one, including defensive ends and linebackers, have the explosive get off and quickness like Floyd. Often in the backfield before the play has even begun, Floyd is a disruptor at the three-technique position and will be counted on once again to stay on the field, continuing his development into what could be top five at his position by season’s end.
Tom Johnson – It wasn’t long ago when Johnson was signed from the New Orleans Saints that many predicted he would be no more than a training camp body. Nothing could be further from the truth now as Johnson has established himself as a rock inside the rotation of defensive tackles, giving coaches the confidence to leave him out on the field for multiple plays and series at a time. Johnson adds a huge boost to the depth and rotation as a guy who can be more than just a body and makes plays as a pass-rusher, allowing others like Linval Joseph to remain fresh throughout the season. You could make an argument for Johnson as being the best free agent signing up to this point since the Zimmer era has started, which says a lot about a now 32-yea-old rotational backup.
Shamar Stephen – The potential has always been there for Stephen, who was a big body drafted in the seventh round from UConn now three seasons ago. The plan was to ease him into the rotation while building up his strength to eventually be the full-time backup at the nose tackle position. Injuries have derailed that plan, however, as Stephen was shelved for most of the year, only seeing action in five games in 2015. With another crop of young talent coming in, it’s now or never for him to prove he can stay on the field while also proving his worth. If not, there will be plenty of others knocking on the door that are desperate for his job like Kenrick Ellis, putting him on thin ice heading into camp.
Anthony Barr – I look at a powerhouse defense like the Denver Broncos, who proved the age old mantra “defense wins championships” stills rings loud and true, and it was obvious how vital having a blue-chip pass rusher inside your front seven like Von Miller turned the unit from great to elite. Barr is far from Miller’s status throughout the league, but the tools, athletic ability, and playmaking mentality to be a superstar are all sitting in his bread basket. We saw him his rookie year scoop and score a game-winning defensive touchdown in overtime against the Tampa Buccaneers while flashing serious pass-rushing potential. In 2015, we saw Barr’s open field tackling go from night-to-day, looking vastly improved when it came to wrapping up the ball carrier and finishing the tackle in open space. We knew when he was drafted that Barr would be a work in progress as it was unclear of where and how Zimmer would utilize him with the wide skill-set. Many thought bulking him up to play a 4-3 defensive end was what was on deck for Barr. Like many others on the roster, Barr is young and oozing with talent. Look for Zimmer to free the reins on him in his third year and start to be even more aggressive with his front-seven personnel. Staying on the field will be critical for Barr if he wants to take that next step into league stardom after missing six games in just two seasons due to nagging injuries. If he can’t, then the fan base and league will have no choice but to slap the dreaded “injury prone” bumper sticker on his rear end.
Erik Kendricks – It was clear after breaking down his college tape that Kendricks (Butkus Award winner) was a tackling machine at UCLA. The question heading into the NFL was if his smaller stature and size was enough to keep him from getting swallowed up in traffic and off blockers. While he wasn’t perfect in that area, Kendricks did prove he was able to withstand the heat of the proverbial front-seven kitchen after amassing a team high in tackles in just his first year. Kendricks may never make as many splash plays as his peers. However, his job task is much more important, which is cleaning up the mess in traffic and bringing down the ball carrier with clean and crisp fundamentals. Kendricks has already solidified himself in both the nickel and base defensive looks, but could find himself kicked outside more if another player (Kentrell Brothers perhaps) can prove their worth at the Mike position inside.
Chad Greenway – After a horrific start to his career (torn ACL on first play of preseason) Greenway has battled back and has been outstanding for the franchise. Playing in his 11th season, Greenway has been a staple at the linebacker position during his tenure, racking up 735 tackles while being given multiple accolades and awards. Greenway will play a far more limited role more than ever, as the 33 year old offers more value inside the locker and film room than he does physically on the field. While his value in those areas are without question and will continue to help groom the younger linebackers on the roster, it’s never easy to cut a more youthful player with higher upside for an aging veteran. Truth be told, Greenway is soaking up a valuable spot on the roster for his ever decreasing role.
Edmond Robinson – Robinson showed potential in practice and in his limited playing time (mostly on special teams) with his easy movement skills in combination with his long and lanky frame. Robinson did struggle with proper angles (specifically in the Arizona Cardinals game) and has a long way to go for a significant bump in playing time, but he does show the tools to be developed and eventually be the full time backup.
Audie Cole – Can you believe this will be Cole’s fifth year with the team already? And yet, unfortunately, he seems to be stuck in the same spot he was when he first started. Ask any die hard fan and they will plead a case as to why Cole should receive more playing time, and they might not be wrong. During his time on the field Cole has always seemed to be productive, even once turning in a 14-tackle performance against the Chicago Bears. Injuries have held Cole back, though even when healthy it seems Cole has been unable to make enough impression on the coaching staff during weekly practices to crack the starting lineup on a consistent basis. Still, Cole’s high-energy pace and blue collar mentality make it more than reasonable to find a spot on the roster under a Zimmer regime that just wants “football players.”
Kentrell Brothers – Here’s what you need to know about this fifth-round pick: He isn’t the biggest, nor the fastest, but all he does is make tackles. In 2015 no one had more tackles in all of college football than Brothers (152, while the next best was 140), who broke multiple records at Missouri and was a stand out linebacker in the nation’s most physical conference, the SEC. He played primarily on the outside in college but will likely move back inside for the Vikings, which could allow Kendricks to kick out to his more natural position outside killing two birds with one stone (got all that?). In the immediate future, though, look for Brothers to learn the nuances of the game and the intricacies of Zimmer’s methodical play book while he starts out with a heavy dose of special teams work (where he will likely shine).
Xavier Rhodes – It’s the deepest position of the bunch in my opinion, and Rhodes is on top of the castle. Rhodes has flashed greatness, shutting down monster names such as Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, but he seemed to take a baby step backwards last year compared to the high expectations that were set by fans. Rhodes is clearly the most consistent cover corner on the roster and has the physical size to match up against any team’s number one wide out. While he has yet to break out of his interception slump and turn into a bonafide playmaker, he will continue to hone his craft and be the rock at the position for many years to come.
Trae Waynes – After talking to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray down at this year’s Senior Bowl, he has me convinced the starting spot is Waynes to lose. The coaching staff quietly has tons of high expectations this year and is expecting him to come in and earn the job outright after being brought along slowly by the DB whisperer himself, Coach Zimmer. Waynes might never be a ball hawk or interception guru, but instead wins with world class speed and uses his incredible burst to break on the ball and break up the pass. Bottom line, with Zimmer’s guidance on technique, Wayne’s is going to make every ball thrown his way a contested catch. Judging by the talk of the general fan base it’s my personal notion that Waynes is going to be one of the bigger surprises of the 2016 season, as they may have already forgotten just why Zimmer and the front office chose Waynes with the 11th overall selection.
Captain Munnerlyn – After admitting he colored outside the lines and at times played by his own rules inside the defensive scheme, Munnerlyn rebounded nicely last season and grew into the prototypical nickel back, which is the good news. The bad news is he now has a talented rookie breathing down his neck for playing time in Mackensie Alexander. Given how much of a snail-like pace the coaching staff has been about giving their rookies playing time in general, it’s highly unlikely Munnerlyn will see many snaps lost this season. But the same can’t be said for the 2017 season when Munnerlyn will again become a free agent.
Mackensie Alexander – This was a kid who was the number one cornerback on many people’s draft boards heading into the predraft process. Eventually, though, teams were scared off by his lack of interceptions and big play statistics. Rest assured, after breaking down Alexander’s college tape, he is the real deal in every sense of the word playing a physical brand of football while getting the most out of his teammates. Alexander is also known for his trash talk and mind games, enjoying the ability to get into the heads of his opponents. Call me optimistic, but I see him as being one of the bigger steals in the draft (lasting into the second round). The coaching staff admits they want to try him inside at the nickel position, but I think he will become one of the more well-rounded cornerbacks on the team, with the ability to play inside or outside equally well.
Terence Newman – What I suspected to be just a training camp body turned out to be much more than that as the crafty veteran earned a starting spot and made some key plays throughout the season. His role will likely diminish this season with Trae Waynes seeing more starting time, which is okay by him and his 37-year-old body, which is entering its 14th season. Newman will take a backseat in 2016 when it comes to playing time but will still add outstanding value in depth and veteran leadership.
Marcus Sherels – The guy you just can’t count out. Sherels is notorious for being on the bubble every year heading into this time of the season, and in turn is notorious for ultimately earning a spot on the final roster. The hometown boy has always been vastly undersized, but you’d never know it as he pops back up with the best of them. Sherels’ value lies in special teams as one of the better punt returners in the league while being a dependable fifth option at the cornerback position in a quarter-base defense. At the end of the day, Sherels is another one of those hard-nosed football players Zimmer loves. Seeing a trend here?
Harrison Smith – Well, if people didn’t know just how valuable Smith was heading into the season, they do now. Smith’s contract made him the highest paid safety in the league earning him over $53 million, and if you’ve ever watched him play you know he’s worth every penny. Smith is a bonafide soldier of Zimmer’s defense that does whatever he’s asked and produces at a high level. From playing ball hawk in center field to popping the pads in the box, Smith thrives at multiple levels of the field and has turned into the ultimate chess piece. What will help Smith’s game the most in 2016, ironically, has nothing to do with him, as the team is in desperate need to find a safety that can play at a high level opposite of him allowing to maximize his skill set.
Andrew Sendejo – Sendejo takes a lot of heat from the fan base, but at the end of the day it’s hard to imagine anyone else earning the starting spot from him by Week 1. As we’ve seen, Sendejo is limited in coverage but doesn’t make numerous mental mistakes, which is more important to Zimmer when playing inside the confines of his defense. It’s not sexy, but Sendejo is your starting safety to start the season once again.
Anthony Harris – A player that is farther away from the starting spot than people want to admit, Harris is still a raw safety learning the NFL game that went undrafted just a year ago. The good news is that there is a playmaking presence inside that scrawny frame of his that led the nation in interceptions playing for Virginia before entering the draft. Harris flashed fireworks at times during his starting game against the Cardinals, showing off some incredible range and physicality, but also fired off some duds during the same performance, getting bulldozed by Larry Fitzgerald in the running game. All in all, Harris has the tools to play center field, allowing Smith to move inside the box full time which has always been Zimmer’s dream situation. Adding more strength through weight and continuing to take proper angles in the running game will be his top priority during his second season.
Jayron Kearse – Besides MoBo, there might not be a bigger wildcard than Kearse, who I could see being a starter in three years, or being cut altogether after just weeks of training camp. Nearly undrafted, Kearse was passed up by numerous teams time and time again, until Coach Zimmer saw enough upside physically to pull the trigger in the seventh round. At 6’4”, Kearse is already one of the tallest safeties in the league while owning a NFL gene pool with his uncle Jevon dominating the league with his time on the Tennessee Titans. How much patience will the coaching staff have with Kearse is up in the air, but at a position of unknowns and weakness, Zimmer’s coaching confidence could be enough to mold this young talent given the proper time.
Special Teams (3)
Blair Walsh – It’s unknown how long it will take the fanbase to overcome the devastating loss and missed kick by Walsh in the playoffs, but his teammates and coaches have already let it go and have his back heading into a new season. Regardless of how easy the kick is based off conversion rates throughout the league, without Walsh the team would have been without the nine points they had heading into their final drive. Coming out of Georgia, the story on Walsh was always one of inconsistencies (21 of 35 FG attempts in his senior season), but was also filled with high potential like we saw his rookie season, going a perfect 10 for 10 on field goals of 50 yards or longer. Walsh may always be haunted by that kick and inconsistencies throughout his career, but when scoping out the rest of the league, clearly it’s not easy to find a kicker that has done the things Walsh has already done in his young career.
Jeff Locke – I’m not here to argue against or defend Locke’s struggles, which have been widely known and deeply criticized. It is important to note, however, the tall task of moving outdoors and kicking in wildly inconsistent conditions, which he was asked to do during the team’s tenure at TCF Bank Stadium. When compared to his weekly opponents, Locke almost always outkicked them on a yards per punt, proving just how tough it was to do his job at TCF. No excuses now as Locke moves back indoors and has one last chance to prove his worth on the team’s 53-man roster.
Kevin McDermott – In what was one of the more dramatic battles of camp last season, McDermott beat out long time Viking Cullen Loeffler for the starting position. Now, with a year under his belt he will likely be more comfortable in his role and continue to develop a rapport with his fellow teammates on the special teams unit.