I’ll start with a confession: I’m a bit of a sucker for safeties.
I tend to gravitate towards players with versatility. Hybrid players capable of multiple roles are fascinating and so much fun to watch, and that’s what’s necessary from the modern safety position. Gone are the days of a traditional strong safety and free safety. Versatility is the name of the game, and for Minnesota Vikings fans, we’re lucky to have a trio of players who fit that description.
Franchise stalwart Harrison Smith is still playing at an incredibly high level entering his age-33 season. For the past decade, Harry the Hitman has been a tone-setter for the entire defense with his physicality and versatility. Smith’s game has developed mentally to the point that the minor decline in athleticism is negligible on gameday, as he’s two steps ahead every play. He’s an excellent tackler, brilliant in coverage, and is elite playing downhill in the box as an extra run defender or blitzer.
Seemingly one of the biggest hits in the 2021 draft was Cam Bynum, their fourth-round pick. The former Cal corner turned safety flashed as a rookie, making a solid case to be Smith’s running mate in 2022. He’s long and rangy, and his coverage skills are nothing to scoff at. He had his coming-out party against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, recording 12 tackles and an interception in an impressive effort. His game needs seasoning, but his upside is exciting.
And then there’s 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine, who was unfortunately overshadowed on draft night by all the groaning about Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s decision to trade back with the Detroit Lions.
But once fans gave Cine the second look he deserved, you saw just how much there is to be excited about here. The former Georgia Bulldog was a focal point of college football’s best defense in 2021, and it’s easy to see why. Touting impressive 4.37 speed and a hard nose for the football, Cine made a living blowing up screens and making men pay for going over the middle against the Bulldogs.
He is as mentally adept as any rookie could hope to be, and he explodes downhill at the ball carrier like he’s shot out of a cannon. The Vikings clearly drafted him to emphasize the new identity of their defense: fast, physical, and violent.
But some have criticized the Cine pick because of the apparent depth at the position. If you like Bynum and don’t expect Smith to retire anytime soon, isn’t Cine a luxury rather than a need? Did Adofo-Mensah draft a backup safety in the first round?
Instead, let’s assess the situation using a modern perspective. Don’t think about this trio of safeties like you’re playing Madden and only have two starting safety spots to fill. Instead, imagine what their versatility could mean for Ed Donatell’s scheme.
Donatell’s defense asks a lot of their safeties and counts on them to be interchangeable at any given time. One player needs to look like he’s blitzing and back off, while another simultaneously does the opposite. This confuses starting quarterbacks and keeps offenses guessing.
Now imagine this scenario. Cine, Bynum, AND Smith are all on the field simultaneously.
You’ve got to diagnose which players will be in coverage, run support, or blitzing. All of a sudden, that’s not so easy. Bynum and Cine can interchangeably move about the defensive backfield and have the athleticism to cover the deep middle of the field. Cine and Smith are elite tacklers in space and can come up towards the line of scrimmage. Bynum and Smith can cover the slot receiver in man coverage. These overlapping capabilities are no longer superfluous but a tremendous asset.
Imagine studying these three guys on tape and trying to diagnose what they’re going to do on a given play.
Now, I’m not expecting the Vikings’ base defense to feature three-safety looks. But the point is that a creative defensive coordinator like Donatell must be salivating at the possibilities here. Not only is there depth in the case of an injury, but he has the pieces to be playing chess while others are playing checkers.
These ideas may take time to come to fruition, as all three will be adjusting to a new defensive scheme. They’ll need to learn to walk before they can run, especially in Bynum and Cine’s case.
But once this defense gets comfortable enough that Donatell can open up the playbook, then he can really unleash every player’s potential. And this trio of safeties might be the “secret sauce” that takes things to a new level.