Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we will break down the safety position.
The final position battle to be won — arguably by default — at the end of training camp this past summer was the other safety spot next to Harrison Smith. The Vikings tried a few different players there, including veteran signees Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman, but head coach Mike Zimmer opted to go with Robert Blanton, despite Blanton missing a chunk of camp with an injury.
While one usually only noticed Blanton when he was getting trucked by a big running back like Eddie Lacy in the open field, Smith was impossible to miss. The third-year safety thrived in Zimmer’s scheme as a do-it-all weapon, blitzing, covering and dropping into zones. He was the only NFL defensive back with at least five interceptions and three sacks, and he added 93 tackles. Smith should have been playing in the Pro Bowl two days ago, but he did not get an invite.
Back to Blanton, the third-year safety suffered a leg injury in Week 14 and missed one game. When he returned to the lineup in Week 16, the Vikings instead started Andrew Sendejo next to Smith.
Heading into this offseason, that second starting safety spot is once again in flux for the Vikings.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Smith thrived under Zimmer and is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s very best safeties, if he isn’t there already. Smith’s play was a major factor in the Vikings improving to seventh in the NFL in pass defense last season, and he should only get better in 2015 now that he and his teammates are more comfortable with Zimmer’s scheme. But first, the Vikings have decisions to make with Smith. Picking up his fifth-year option for 2016 is a no-brainer, and signing him to a contract extension before the 2015 season would seem to be a wise move.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings were able to get by with Blanton and then Sendejo in the starting lineup, but this remains a position that they can upgrade. More on that in a minute.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Smith was one of the league’s highest graded safeties, per their grading, with a plus-17.9 grade. Blanton was surprisingly a plus-8.8, curious because the Vikings benched him and all. Sendejo was a plus-2.7 and rookie Antone Exum was a plus-0.2 in limited action.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: seven — team-leading tackles for a loss (not including sacks) for Smith.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: The Vikings have a young group of safeties who are all 27 or under. Sendejo is the only one who is not on his rookie deal anymore, but he is still under contract for 2015. So all of these guys are safe — at least until final roster cuts at the end of the preseason.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Pretty high. I’m sure the Vikings can do worse than Blanton or Sendejo (or Exum, who remains an unknown at this point) next to Smith, but they can also do a lot better. Finding a rangy safety to pair with Smith would allow them to keep him closer to the line, where he can cause problems as a run defender and pass rusher when he isn’t dropping into coverage. There are some intriguing (and perhaps expensive) options scheduled to reach free agency, led by Devin McCourty and Rahim Moore. Drafting a safety is also an option, of course.
Sports Club Stats and Hockey Reference both offer up percentage chances, based on formulas, pace and simulations, that the different NHL teams will make the playoffs.
Their numbers are a little different, but both tell essentially the same unsurprising story: the Wild has A LOT of ground to make up and is a long shot to even reach the postseason one year after giving fans hope that deep postseason runs could be a trend going forward.
Sports Club Stats has the Wild at a 6.4 percent chance of making the postseason. Hockey Reference is a little more optimistic, but not much, giving the Wild a 9.3 percent chance — a little worse than 1 in 10 for those who don’t like percentages — of making the playoffs.
Hockey Reference has a best-case scenario of the Wild reaching 100 points. That would be crazily optimistic, but if we look at other projections the final Wild Card in the West can be expected to have somewhere between 93 and 95 points.
Minnesota is 20-20-6 and has 46 points in 46 games at the All Star break. So let’s say they’re going to need another 48 points in their final 36 games to reach that Wild Card projection territory. That’s a 1.33 points-per-game pace, on par with a 109-point season over a full 82.
That’s the type of total elite teams put up. So in essence, the Wild needs not just to be good in the second half. Assuming the projections are in the neighborhood of being correct, the Wild needs to play (and earn points) like one of the 3-5 best teams in the NHL over the final 36 games.
Can it be done? Sure. We only need to look at last year’s history as a guide. Minnesota was 24-17-5 for 53 points after 46 games (that was earlier in the year last year because the NHL had a long break in February for the Olympics). In Minnesota’s final 36 games, the Wild went 19-10-7, earning 45 points and qualifying for the playoffs before upsetting Colorado in the first round.
If Minnesota can be just a little better than that — say, 20-8-8 — the playoffs are a possibility. Getting there, of course, will require much better all-around play than we saw from the Wild pre-break. If there is any silver lining, it’s that everything that could possibly go wrong seemingly did in the first 46 games. But it could also be the case that this Wild team is less than the sum of its parts and that its on-ice deficiencies — goaltending, effort, lack of pure scorers, whatever the case might be on a given night –will continue to drag the team down into a disappointing, playoff-free finish.
The projections say the latter is the way the season almost certainly will play out. We’ll start to find out for sure tonight in Edmonton, the first of 36 games in which there is very little margin for error.
So you’re Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. Would you rather …
A, Go to U.S. Airways Center and sit for an hour as reporters and freak shows — sometimes one in the same, mind you — badger you with even more questions about deflated footballs and your suspected roles in said deflation during the annual Super Bowl Media Day lunacy.
B, Move kickoff up five days, drive out to Glendale and face what could go down in history as one of the best, if not the best, defenses the league has ever seen.
Option B isn’t available, so the Patriots quarterback and coach — barring last-minute advice from Marshawn Lynch — will face the media. Again.
Before the Access Vikings blog heads down the street, probably wearing shorts, although it could be a tad chilly at 60 or so, we thought we’d share the thoughts of a fairly prominent ex-Viking who was known to throw a few passes in his day.
And, yes, add Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton to the list of people who don’t believe pretty much anything Brady or Belichick has been saying as they’ve categorically denied any involvement or knowledge of the Patriots using deflated footballs in the first half of their AFC Championship game win over the Colts.
Q: What are your thoughts on `Deflate-gate,’ Fran?
A: “This has been going on for a lot of years. We always rubbed the balls down and got them ready when I played. But we didn’t, in my era, deflate the balls. When you deflate the balls, it’s easier to throw it and easier to catch it. And you don’t fumble as much.
“It is wrong. And the NFL has said nothing. Nothing.”
Q: Do you think Brady ordered the code red! had anything to do with it?
A: “The thing that I know is that when we would get the slickness off the footballs, I touched every ball before the game. I was in charge of that. They didn’t rub the footballs more than I wanted or less than I wanted. I took charge of that. Today, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, all those guys, I guarantee they make sure those footballs are exactly how they want them.
“Nobody put a needle in that ball to reduce the air out of it without Tom Brady telling them what he wants. Without him instructing it. Impossible to do. Not going to happen.”
Q: What did you think of his press conference last week then?
A: “I think it was a typical NFL press conference. They had coached him and coached him what to say. And I would say the league office was involved with that press conference. They haven’t addressed the issue. Nobody has identified who was responsible. This is a typical NFL coverup. And they aren’t going to say anything about it until after the Super Bowl because how will the Super Bowl be with Belichick and Brady being suspended. I don’t think it would be too good.”
Q: Are you surprised?
A: No. Not when you see what goes on in the league. Here’s the thing that is the most massive coverup of all time. One that nobody talks about in the NFL. Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) gives guys an edge and they are rampant in the National Football League. And who do you know that talks about it? Nobody.”