Is Cam Bynum the Eventual Successor to Harrison Smith?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have had exceptional play at the safety position for almost a decade now thanks to All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, who was drafted out of Notre Dame in 2012. Smith’s career in Minnesota has resulted in five Pro Bowl appearances so far, and there’s a chance he finds himself in the Hall of Fame one day.

Smith, 32, is in the final year of his contract, but it was reported this week that the Vikings and Smith’s camp are working on a contract extension. The details have yet to be determined, but it could keep Smith in Minnesota for the entirety of his career. However, the Vikings will eventually need a successor to Smith. What if I told you that that player is already on Minnesota’s roster? Camryn Bynum is a fourth-round pick who played cornerback at Cal. But when the Vikings drafted him, they envisioned a switch to safety.

Bynum doesn’t possess the speed or press-coverage skills to play cornerback in Mike Zimmer’s scheme. “Our coaches love to work with these types of kids,” Rick Spielman said after the draft, “who not only were athletic enough that if you got in a pinch, they could go out to corner, but they’re athletic enough and smart enough to do everything at the safety position that is required.”

A first-team All Pac-12 player, Bynum was a four-year starter in Berkeley, displaying great effort with his tackling and run defense. He showed good awareness and plays very instinctively. Bynum had an idea that teams might ask him to play nickel or move to safety because of his interviews in the pre-draft process.

So, why is Bynum primed to be a good safety?

First, he excels against the run. He was the best run defender among cornerbacks in the 2021 draft class, per PFF’s grades. He also ranked approximately 20 points higher in run-defense grading than Trevon Moehrig, who was touted as the best safety in the draft. Smith has averaged an elite 80 PFF grade against the run.

Bynum’s athletic profile is that of a smaller Harrison Smith. He is shorter and lighter, but both players possess similar speed. Smith ran a 4.57 40-yard dash while Bynum ran a 4.58, and they both are known for playing faster than their 40-time suggests. Bynum and Smith also had similar vertical jumps, broad jumps, and short shuttle measurements.

Additionally, while Bynum struggled mightily in man coverage, he excels in zone coverage, which makes the switch to safety more encouraging. He had a 79.2 PFF grade in zone vs a 50.3 grade in man. For comparison, Smith is the opposite. While he is good in both man coverage and zone coverage, he is elite at pressing both receivers and tight ends.

Bynum got worked in man coverage against Seattle Seahawks rookie wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge in the Senior Bowl, displaying struggles against speed, double moves, and quick inside breaks.

Overall, however, Bynum had a solid outing in Mobile. His deficiencies in man coverage can be eliminated by more reps at safety.

Perhaps the most impressive performance of Bynum’s college career came against San Francisco 49ers first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk. All game long, Bynum displayed sticky coverage and anticipation, holding Aiyuk under 30 yards.

Bynum met with Vikings special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken before the draft and projects to be a sure-fire punt and kick coverage contributor, which will put his tackling skills to use. However, he has never played safety in his life, and he has never played a down in the NFL in his life. But he gets to learn from one of the best safeties of the past decade in Harrison Smith.

The Vikings are working on an extension for Smith while making sure that his successor is on the roster, which is essential to keep the high level of safety play consistent and to helping depth in case of injuries.

“[Smith] will probably get annoyed and bothered,” Bynum said recently, “but I’m going to be in his ear asking all sorts of questions.”

Over time, the hope is that Bynum can be a starter at safety for the Vikings, long after the Harrison Smith era is finished.

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