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Updated: June 3rd, 2010 1:12pm
Pelissero: Don't bet on Vikings switching starters at safety

Pelissero: Don't bet on Vikings switching starters at safety

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

There is a perception around the NFL the Minnesota Vikings aren't set at the safety position, and to an extent, it's true.

Look no further than the audition second-year pro Jamarca Sanford is getting with the No. 1 defense during the Vikings' organized team activity practices.

"I would think," an NFC executive said recently, "they'd still be looking for a safety."

But when it comes to pursuing O.J. Atogwe -- the former St. Louis Ram who became a free agent this week and quickly was linked as a possibility for the Vikings -- or any other veteran, don't bet on it.

If the Vikings replace Tyrell Johnson or Madieu Williams, odds are that replacement will come from within. And considering the investments the Vikings have made in both players, there's a good chance they'll emerge with the same starters they had last season.

The Vikings considered Johnson first-round material in 2008, when they drafted him 43rd overall, and scouts remain high on Johnson's skill-set even though he's yet to live up to that grade.

"I know that Tyrell Johnson struggled early last year," a college scout for an NFC team said. "I think he got better. You're talking about somebody who made a big jump up in competition from Arkansas State. I think there's a natural adjustment period there.

"People kind of got on him, but shoot -- I think he's really talented. I think he's somebody that they'll be happy with in time. I would not be giving up on him at all."

Williams, who is entering his seventh season, generally is regarded as an adequate starter despite failing to live up to the six-year, $33.75 million deal he signed in February 2008.

That deal quietly was restructured in late December to make it more palatable in the event the salary cap returns, but Williams' compensation -- including a $2.974 base salary and $100,000 workout bonus this year -- remained nearly identical.

"I think he does some things that are impressive," an NFC pro scout said. "I think they're two good, solid safeties."

Still, the NFC executive ranked safety second among the Vikings' positional weaknesses, both starters struggled for stretches last year and coaches have stopped short of saying either player will retain his starting spot for the coming season.

That Sanford has taken so many first-team reps during OTAs -- the former seventh-round pick, who made one start as a rookie, said he's practiced alongside both players -- only reinforces the notion at least one job is up for grabs.

Asked last week if the Vikings have two starting safeties, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, "We think we do. Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson are going to be two guys who are going to improve each year they are with us. We think they'll improve again this next season and get better.

"But at the same time, we feel we have some guys who can push them a little bit. Jamarca Sanford is one of those guys. We think Husain Abdullah is another guy who can potentially push those starters.

"Nothing is engraved in stone at this point. It's still competition."

Williams' restructured contract continues to present long-term questions. In 2011, his base salary is scheduled to jump to $5.4 million for each of its three remaining years.

That's a lot to pay a traffic cop in a Cover-2 defense who turns 29 in October, misses too many tackles and has yet to play consecutive seasons without missing significant time because of injuries. By comparison, Johnson -- who received a $1.469 million signing bonus on his rookie deal -- is due only minimum base salaries of $470,000 this season and $555,000 in 2011.

If the Vikings considered an upgrade pressing, they wouldn't have passed on safeties altogether in April's NFL Draft. And with a possible lockout looming in 2011, the prospect of paying a player such as Atogwe -- who never has been to a Pro Bowl -- eight figures in up-front money can't be attractive.

More likely, the Vikings figure another year with Williams and Johnson together will help them work more cohesively within a scheme that doesn't give safeties much freedom to attack and make plays anyway.

When the Vikings first opened OTAs two weeks ago, Williams and Johnson were the only two incumbent starters on the field.

"They were here for every one of these (OTAs) last year," coach Brad Childress said. "Madieu has a great way about him, coming back and getting involved. When they get out here, they can't think about doing anything else. I think the communication will be much more streamlined, and I see that from all the guys that had an opportunity with extended snaps last year."

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.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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