Vikings: Closer look at safeties in coverage

MINNEAPOLIS -- We touched on this in some detail in the second part of our Vikings mailbag this morning, and also in this look at the team's plan for Harrison Smith, but I wanted to briefly revisit the idea of getting good cover safeties in Mike Zimmer's defense and what that could mean for how the position plays out this season.

General manager Rick Spielman mentioned after the draft that the Vikings' coaching staff wants safeties with the skills to handle receivers in man coverage, and as NFL offenses have shifted toward the passing game, putting more wideouts on the field and flexing more agile tight ends out from the line of scrimmage, defenses have responded by asking their safeties to be more versatile. The strong safety/free safety designation is all but gone in the NFL -- largely because teams can't presume to have one safety who's primarily there to play the run -- and as Zimmer said last week, the league has gotten to a point where he's wondered if it's a better idea to take a safety off the field altogether.

"The safety position in college football really is hard to find guys now at least in my opinion -- guys that have the coverage ability that you are looking for," he said. "There are times in my career that I always thought, 'Let’s play three with corners and one safety and make the other guy a safety because of the throwing that's been going on in the league.' The bigger corners that may not be quite as fast that are better tacklers, that are more physical, smart -- they have to be smart -- we always have a little category for those guys to be a possibility of being safeties."

Zimmer said that in response to a question about rookie Antone Exum, whom the Vikings will convert from cornerback to safety, and if the Virginia Tech rookie wins some playing time this year, it will probably be because of his coverage ability. We saw this play out in Cincinnati, where Zimmer's best defenses had two safeties who could handle receivers; according to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals' George Iloka allowed the fifth-fewest yards per coverage snap of any safety in the league last season, while counterpart Reggie Nelson ranked 12th. In 2012, Nelson and Chris Crocker were 18th and 21st in the league, respectively.

That could also bode well for Jamarca Sanford, who's been one of the Vikings' better coverage safeties over the past few seasons. He allowed just 149 yards in 452 snaps of pass coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and tied Seattle's Earl Thomas for the seventh-best figure in the league (the Vikings' Andrew Sendejo was ninth). In 2012, Sanford gave up only 199 yards in 476 coverage snaps, as he played well enough to get a two-year deal from the Vikings.

The competition for playing time at safety this year -- especially at the spot opposite Smith -- figures to be a heated race between Sanford, Sendejo, Exum, Kurt Coleman, Robert Blanton and Mistral Raymond, but in today's NFL, and especially in the NFC North, how well the Vikings' safeties can handle receivers will play a significant role in setting the pecking order.