Updated: October 19th, 2012 3:08pm
Notebook: 'Contact player' Jamarca Sanford has case to keep starting

Notebook: 'Contact player' Jamarca Sanford has case to keep starting

by Tom Pelissero
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The more plays Jamarca Sanford makes, the harder it'll be to take him out of the Minnesota Vikings' lineup whenever Mistral Raymond is ready to return.

In three games and part of another since Raymond dislocated his right ankle on Sept. 23 against San Francisco, Sanford has 20 tackles (16 solo), three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three passes defended.

"Y'all say I'm playing pretty good," Sanford said on Friday. "I feel the same way. I'm playing pretty good. But there's still a lot of room for improvement and trying to go out each and every week.

"Last year, it was just like a stepping stone. I had to learn from a lot of mistakes I did last year and just trying to correct them this year."

Mostly a special teamer in his first two NFL seasons, Sanford beat out Tyrell Johnson for a starting job last season opposite Husain Abdullah. But Sanford struggled in the expanded role, particularly in pass coverage.

"I think he's gotten better there. I really do," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's getting his hands on more balls. He's judging the ball a lot better from center field."

Raymond and first-round draft pick Harrison Smith beat out Sanford in camp. But the extra time Sanford put into DB drills have yielded apparent progress since his return to the lineup -- and the physical style that has made him such an effective special teamer is finally showing up on defense, too.

"He's a contact player," defensive backs coach Joe Woods said. "When we looked at him coming out in the draft, we just thought he was a version of (former NFL defensive player of the year) Bob Sanders, because he played with a high rate of speed. He would tackle anybody, didn't discriminate, and you see it right now on the football field."

Raymond returned to practice this week and could be ready for game action as soon as Nov. 4 against Seattle. Players rarely lose starting jobs to injury, but Raymond has only eight NFL starts and has had issues staying on the field in the past.

"I don't worry about that," Sanford said. "Whatever Coach Frazier wants me to do, I'm willing to do it for this team. All I want to do is keep winning."

Not talking

Sanford said he's not aware of any discussions between the Vikings and his agent about a contract extension.

His four-year rookie deal, which included a modest $49,275 signing bonus as a seventh-round draft pick out of Ole Miss in 2009, expires after the season.

"I don't even worry about stuff like that," Sanford said. "I just go and play football."

Other potential unrestricted free agents on the Vikings' roster are: offensive linemen Phil Loadholt, Joe Berger and Geoff Schwartz; linebackers Jasper Brinkley, Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell; fullback Jerome Felton; and receivers Jerome Simpson and Devin Aromashodu.

As of Friday afternoon, the Vikings were $8.516 million under their adjusted 2012 salary cap.

Get smart

An NFL spokesman said the league fined Smith $15,750 for his horse-collar tackle of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III in last weekend's game at Washington.

It's the latest costly infraction for Smith, who was fined $21,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on San Diego receiver Mike Willie and was ejected from the Vikings' win over Tennessee on Oct. 7 (but not fined) for pushing an official.

Have coaches warned the rookie about developing a bad reputation?

"To be honest with you, man, I've had conversations, because he had a few situations this year," Woods said. "But the thing I tell him is, be yourself. You have to be smart. You can't commit stupid penalties. So, he has to understand that. But I want him to be himself.

"Harrison Smith -- that's why we drafted him, because of the way he plays football, and I want him to be that same guy, but just make better decisions."

Further than before

Sunday will mark the first time cornerback Chris Cook has played seven games in an NFL season.

His rookie year in 2010 was a wash because of two knee surgeries. He returned last season and was playing his best football before an Oct. 22 arrest on domestic assault charges of which he was acquitted in March.

"I do feel like if I would have been on the field or been around and just to have the knowledge flowing through, especially last year, I would have gotten a lot better," Cook said. "But I've got to take advantage of my opportunities now and just stay on the field and stay healthy and just get better."

Cook has started all six games this season and leads the team with 11 passes defended. He said the knees are no longer an issue and he's mentally refreshed after a year marred by legal problems, which led the Vikings to put him on paid leave.

"I'm just blessed to be here now," Cook said. "Especially injury-free -- that's a big plus. It definitely has held me back my first year. Last year was a situation I could have controlled. Unfortunately, it had to happen the way that it did.

"It helps a lot, especially when I don't have that stress of court and being suspended and not being able to be around the team. It just helps me focus more, helps me concentrate more and helps me be a better player."

The great unknown

Defensive lineman Everson Griffen left the team on Thursday night to travel to Arizona for the funeral of his mother, Sabrina Scott, who passed away while visiting him last week.

Griffen is expected to rejoin the team on Saturday night and play on Sunday, but Frazier admitted he's not sure what to expect about Griffen's mental state.

"It's hard to say," Frazier said. "You don't know how people react to a moment like that. We'll see how he does. Everybody's different. I have no idea."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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