The Vikings have the best safety in the NFL. For years, Vikings fans and writers have been looking for ways to pair that safety with another starting-caliber defensive back, but it looks like that player has been on the roster, getting better every year. In that way, the starting group of Smith and Sendejo are among the best safety tandems in the league, while Anthony Harris’ improvement makes the position look very solid not long after depth at safety was worth worrying quite a bit about. For now, the Vikings only bring five safeties to camp – a first-round star, three undrafted free agents and a seventh-rounder to fill out the group – but can be somewhat confident that they’ve got the depth they need to back up some stellar starters.
[expand title=”HARRISON SMITH”]
Harrison Smith earned more All-Pro votes (45 of a possible 50) than any other safety by a margin of 33, but curiously was not a first-team Pro Bowler. These things happen, but it does seem to fit his career arc – underappreciated by the general public but praised by a smaller group as one of the best in the game. Smith’s versatility is unmatched in the current NFL and is a key cog in the Vikings’ stout defense.
Strengths: Widely recognized as a premier safety by film graders, ranking in the 90th percentile or better every year by Bleacher Report or Pro Football Focus. The only safety to post positive grades in pass-rushing, pass coverage and run defense and one of only two safeties to be top 10 against both the run and the pass – and was number one in both last year. Allowed a passer rating in coverage of 68.0 or lower in five of the last six seasons – including a rating of only 22.0 in 2017. In 2017 was fourth in adjusted yards per target allowed in coverage. Incredible instinctive play that allows him to play faster than his timed speed, and ability to read-and-react to opposing offenses without getting fooled is rare, which gives him some of the best range in the NFL. Recognizes route combinations easily, and can read the eyes of the quarterback before he finishes his drop. Punishing hitter and possibly the hardest-hitting safety in the league. Despite hard-hitting tactics, doesn’t miss many tackles in the open field. Has improved tackling angles nearly every year. Stopping power and smart play against angles allows him to take down much bigger running backs by himself. Aggressive play against the ball, which allows him to generate an impressive number of interceptions and pass deflections. Didn’t allow a reception over 18 yards during the regular season. Great blitzer who can produce pressures and sacks off the edge with more consistency than almost any other safety in the league.
Weaknesses: While generally good at avoiding traps set by the offense, can still be pulled out of his assignment by particularly deceptive quarterbacks or receivers. Needs to rely on sifting through traffic, doesn’t disengage from blockers inside the box once they lock on. Vastly improved in man coverage, but behind in man capability vs safeties like Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu. While instincts improve range, if he’s caught chasing, he can lose to receivers with 4.4 speed.[/expand]
[expand title=”ANDREW SENDEJO”]
Andrew Sendejo has improved every single year as a player—something said about a lot of athletes, but not always true. In this case, however, Sendejo has become more than a practice squad stash or a special teams maven, he’s moved comfortably into a starting role with the Vikings and provides solid value at a position the Vikings have been trying to fill for quite some time. At this point in his career, he’s more than just a cog in the machine; he’s part of why the Vikings are a good defense.
Strengths: A great hitter, Sendejo is known to punish receivers by laying the wood. Seems to have substantially improved his ability to locate the ball in the air. Decisive about what he sees, unlikely to hesitate at the snap. Has the range to be a free safety, and is versatile enough to play either role. Flows to the ball well in the run game and disciplined in run responsibility. His lateral agility is above average for a safety and he uses it well. Plays fast on the field. Excellent lateral agility, and helps with open-field tackling.
Weaknesses: Not a man-to-man coverage player and it would be difficult to ask him to cover tight ends or slot receivers should the need arise. Turning and running with the receiver, even in deep coverage, can be an issue despite his better quickness overall. Does not wrap up well, and relies on power to bring down the ballcarrier. Doesn’t miss more than an average number of tackles despite that, but the misses are often memorable. Still needs better play diagnosis. Can get turned around in coverage and has shown transition issues. Still not excellent against play fakes and can be found out of position, though less often than the younger safeties on the roster. Plays a little too loose and sometimes overruns the play.[/expand]
[expand title=”JAYRON KEARSE”]
With four safeties to be kept on the roster at any time, it may not be time for Jayron Kearse to have a “make-or-break” year. That said, the roster pressure from the cornerback group could decrease the number of safeties on the roster. Also, Tray Matthews seems to be more talented than a typical undrafted free agent. Both of those tell us that Kearse may not be quite safe – his impressive size won’t be enough to bank on his potential if he doesn’t give the Vikings a solid reason to keep him on the roster.
Strengths: Incredibly tall and long for his position and moves well for his size. Covers a lot of ground extremely quickly. Read offenses well in 2015 and began moving to the play before the ball does. Good pass-rusher. Can take on blocks technically well and knows when to squeeze blocks and when to slip them to get to the carrier.
Weaknesses: Shockingly not physical for a player with his reputation and size. Though he has moments where he’ll drive through a blocker or run down a running back with a thud, he generally doesn’t seek contact, even against wide receivers. Though he moves well for someone with his length, he still does not have the requisite quickness to execute the functions of a safety. This creates issues not only in approaching runners but maintaining coverage, especially in man assignments. His movement is also not efficient, and he’ll waste steps trying to get into position. Low turnover production. Takes poor running angles. His instinctive play was not evident in 2016 or in the 2017 preseason. He took too long to get going and trust his reads. Versatility for Clemson has not been evident for the Vikings as his awkward movement limits him from free safety and slot roles.[/expand]
[expand title=”ANTHONY HARRIS”]
Anthony Harris was an exciting undrafted free agent to track over the past several offseasons. Originally a mid-round prospect from Virginia, Harris fell out of the draft because of a labrum injury that required surgery and prevented Harris from working out at his pro day. Harris finally earned some potential playing time as a starting safety, but hadn’t impressed when replacing Sendejo. Last year, however, Harris took a step forward and represents a big step up in quality over a number of other backup safeties.
Strengths: After struggling with assignments in his first two years with the Vikings, he’s been a much more consistent safety. Brings versatility to the role with a history of free and strong safety play. Generally speaking, good read-react skills allow him to get into position on the play before the play develops. Solid ball skills. Very physical safety that relishes contact and loves to hit hard in the run game. Smart angles in pursuit, both of ball-carriers and potential receivers downfield. Quicker trigger in NFL last year than in previous years; trusts his instincts more.
Weaknesses: Big issues taking down receivers and running backs in the NFL and in college. Hits don’t land with stopping power and has consistent issues with tackling form. Despite good tackling angles, does a poor job breaking down tackles in the open-field. Not an efficient mover; wastes steps. Cannot contest the ball well despite good ball skills because of size and strength concerns. Not as fluid as a safety should be, and this hurts his ability to transition in zone coverage or consistently win at the route stem in man coverage.[/expand]
[expand title=”TRAY MATTHEWS”]
The Vikings don’t sign or draft many safeties, often choosing to roster only six during training camp and four during the season. Tray Matthews enters camp hoping to unseat Jack Tocho (who may be transitioning to corner) and Kearse for one of those rare backup safety spots and might just have the chops to do it. A highly recruited safety coming out of high school – top five in the nation – missteps at Georgia led him to transfer to Auburn, where he sat a year before starting. Incredibly productive in his three years there, Matthews slid through the draft before the Vikings picked him up as a signing. While more of a traditional strong safety than the hybrids they like to roster, Matthews might be able to offer value on special teams and learn the nuances of high-safety play.
Strengths: Big hitter that lays the wood, and combines it with good tackle technique. Proud of his ability in the run game, and demonstrates excellent tackling angles, form and pre-snap diagnosis. Excellent acceleration and burst. Generally follows the play very well. Good at route and route combination diagnosis. Leadership accolades – called the “CEO of the defense” by his DC and demonstrated natural leadership at Auburn.
Weaknesses: Despite acceleration, has limited long-speed – makes it difficult for him to truly play as a hybrid. Very poor agility, and plays with stiff hips and ankles. Poor in transition when playing man-to-man and needs to keep the play in front of him as a zone defender. Has issues recognizing play-action. Multiple injuries. Though now a mature locker-room leader, worth noting his past – theft and a verbal altercation with a professor – that got him kicked out of Georgia.[/expand]
Check out the rest of the training camp guide:
Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
How to Watch Training Camp Drills
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)