Chris Crocker brings reliability at safety for Vikings, Harrison Smith
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MANKATO, Minn. -- The number of gray hairs in Chris Crocker's stubble still don't exceed the number of games he's played for Mike Zimmer, but they far outweigh the lone game he's missed to injury since 2011.
Crocker, 34, has appeared in 85 contests under the Minnesota Vikings first-year head coach; and while Zimmer proclaimed signing the veteran was "the plan all along," neither the coach or player envisioned four of the team's nine safeties already missing time to injury before the second preseason game.
"[Crocker] is obviously very bright, understands the game," safety Harrison Smith said. "A guy that can do a lot of things. He's always going to be there; dependable."
Dependability is what the Vikings lack in a secondary currently with 19 bodies to be sorted out - just two of which have more than five years of NFL experience outside of Crocker. Smith has also played alongside four different safeties in his 23 starts with the Vikings since he was drafted 29th overall in 2012.
Those four: Robert Blanton (hamstring), Mistral Raymond (head), Jamarca Sanford (back) and Andrew Sendejo (back/ankle) have all missed time during training camp, which has created opportunity for the likes of Kurt Coleman and rookie Antone Exum as the Vikings once again try to find the second starting safety next to Smith.
The Vikings didn't make defensive back a high priority in May's NFL Draft, electing to wait until the sixth and seventh rounds to pick up Exum and cornerbacks Kendall James and Jabari Price.
However, Crocker was clearly in the plans all along as Zimmer brought him out of pseudo-retirement for the third straight season.
"This is what I was waiting for the whole offseason," Crocker said. "I just wasn't here. While I was at home, I was getting ready."
The Bengals, with then-defensive coordinator Zimmer, signed Crocker to one-year deals on Sept. 27, 2012 and again on Sept. 25, 2013. For Crocker, joining during the middle of training camp qualifies as an early start.
"I've shown I can come in later on and still play at a high level," Crocker said. "You know I'm an older guy, it's sort of like, 'hey, you give me a little break.' I didn't come in the first week and a half of camp, but I'm a guy that's been there, done that and seen it."
Crocker said he turned down opportunities from other NFL teams this offseason knowing Zimmer would come calling.
"I didn't want to start over," Crocker said. "When you're with someone for so long, you know: if it aint' broke, don't fix it."
He's taken it upon himself to be what some deem as a 'player-coach,' helping out Smith and other defensive backs with his background playing both safety and cornerback under Zimmer.
The looming question: Can the veteran stay healthy?
Crocker has missed just one game he was available for in the past three seasons - and that's without taking part in a training camp in the past two years. With age comes knowledge, and with that wisdom Crocker said he's been able to keep himself in shape without practicing much during the offseason.
"I just know how to take care of my body," Crocker said. "A lot of things I did when I was younger in the offseason, I think really kind of hurt me. I had a lot of injuries early in my career."
Passing on tips to teammates is nice, but what ultimately matters is how he'll perform should he win the starting job next to Smith. Five of Crocker's 15 career interceptions have come in the past two seasons, including a 32-yard return for a touchdown in his fifth game back after re-signing with the Bengals last season.
"He's a very good cover guy," Smith said. "I don't know what I'll be doing, blitzing or playing deep. I just know he's a guy that makes plays on the ball and that's easy to play with."
Additional listening: Andrew Krammer and Derek Wetmore break down the Vikings first preseason game, including Teddy Bridgewater's performance, the revolving door at safety and who stood out on defense?