The Vikings Need to Take Their Safety Depth Seriously in 2021

Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

As bad as things got in the Minnesota Vikings’ secondary last year, they probably could’ve gotten worse.

To review: Injuries promptly and thoroughly decimated Minnesota’s already-thin corner depth. A Week 1 starting group of Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and Cameron Dantzler quickly gave way to Jeff Gladney, Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand, and… Chris Jones? Cordrea Tankersley, Mark Fields II, and Dylan Mabin made unwelcome cameos as well, comprising a total of 10 corners that took snaps for the Vikings last year. Gladney — who is now in legal trouble over an alleged assault — was the most durable at 89.2% of snaps in 2020. The next most durable player was Dantzler, who played 56% of snaps and missed time for three separate injuries.

Minnesota somehow finished 18th in coverage grade last year, per Pro Football Focus. Imagine how bad it might’ve been if the safeties hadn’t stayed healthy.

While no Vikings corners played 1,000 or more snaps, they had two safeties who did. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were one of just five safety tandems across the league to each log over 1,000 snaps. Despite Harris’ decline and Smith’s plateauing performance, their ability to direct traffic before the snap saved the Vikings from further miscommunications.

Consider the options behind Smith and Harris if either had missed significant time. There was rookie sixth-round pick Josh Metellus, who in his only appearance of more than three snaps gave up a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. Then there was retread George Iloka, who hadn’t started a game since 2018, who got one extended opportunity when Smith was disqualified for a helmet-to-helmet hit at Houston, played 43 snaps, allowed a sloppy touchdown completion, and logged a 34.6 PFF grade, the third-lowest of any safety that week. Iloka suffered a knee injury shortly after, which opened the door for Curtis Riley, he of seven teams in six years, who graded 59th of 64 in his lone season as a starter with the New York Giants. Fortunately for the Vikings, Riley never needed to see the field.

The Vikings were brazen to cross their fingers on Smith and Harris’ health. They dodged a bullet. Now that Harris has been replaced with Xavier Woods, will the Vikings be better equipped if one of their two starters goes down?

This question isn’t just important for the sake of the 2021 Vikings’ secondary but the future of the position, which Minnesota has hardly had to think about since 2015. Smith has been high-performing and contractually secured throughout his nine-year tenure, and former starter Andrew Sendejo transitioned organically into Harris in 2018. But burgeoning UDFAs like Harris don’t grow on the trees, and it’s unclear whether the Vikings have a seamless succession plan with Smith and Woods’ contracts expiring after the season. It’s likely the Vikings have one hole to fill for 2022, and they can’t rely on veteran stopgaps forever.

Mike Zimmer has often been resistant to playing young safeties, notably pulling rookie Jayron Kearse in 2016 after he took a bad tackling angle, slow-playing Harris’ involvement in the defense, and refusing to draft a safety above the sixth round between 2013-20. The Vikings never rotate safeties intentionally, demonstrating Zimmer’s desire for continuity at the position. In 2019 he preferred bringing Sendejo back to the team when Harris was hurt instead of playing Kearse, and in 2020 they re-signed Iloka for depth because he knew the system.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition for a defense that is perpetually grooming rookie corners.

Minnesota made its boldest safety move yet last month by drafting corner Camryn Bynum from Cal in the fourth round and declaring that he’ll be moved to safety. Considering a position switch is involved, this feels like a move for 2022, perhaps foreshadowing that the Vikings are actively pursuing a long-term answer after Smith and/or Woods.

“Just going through college, that’s something I’ve always made an effort to learn: nickel, safety, corner,” Bynum told reporters at rookie mini-camp. “And being in the same room as all of the DBs in college, I was able to hear all of the safety coaching, so here at this point, I know all of the responsibilities. It’s just a matter of reps now, so every time I’m on the field, I’m trying to go through that learning curve, make the right mistakes and fix them every time. Every next play, whatever mistake I made, try not to make it again, so it’s a matter of reps, and I’m enjoying getting them now.”

Bynum has the cerebral nature that might make him a sustainable answer at the position, but what of Minnesota’s competency next year?

The fourth-round rookie will need to be a quick study if he wants to contribute in a pinch next season. Metellus also remains on the roster, but he’ll have to do more in training camp than last year when he was waived on cut day and later re-signed. Next on the depth chart is Myles Dorn, a UDFA who spent 2020 on the injured reserve list with a toe injury. Finally, there’s second-year man Luther Kirk, whose greatest distinction is attending Zimmer’s alma mater Illinois State.

In summary: None of the Vikings’ depth has NFL experience aside from Metellus’ 16 defensive snaps (and special teams work) in 2020. It appears like Minnesota is OK knocking on wood once again that their starters stay healthy. If they don’t, it’ll be trial by fire for a youngster.

Or they could see if Sendejo picks up his phone.

Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters. 

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