Scouting the Vikings: Rookie Harrison Smith has 'everything together'
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Each day until players report to training camp on July 26, Tom Pelissero is breaking down the Minnesota Vikings' roster by position, based on observations of games and practices, tape studies and interviews with NFL coaches and scouts.
On the roster (17)
Robert Blanton, Zackary Bowman, Brandon Burton, Chris Carr, Chris Cook, Bobby Felder, Eric Frampton, Corey Gatewood, Reggie Jones, Mistral Raymond, Josh Robinson (unsigned), Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Sherels, Harrison Smith, Nicholas Taylor, Antoine Winfield.
Cook (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) has a rare combination of size and athleticism for the position, and the Vikings are hoping he's past the injuries (two knee surgeries in 2010) and off-field issues (two arrests, including one on felony domestic assault charges from which he was acquitted) that ruined his first two seasons. He'll start at right cornerback and could end up shadowing bigger No. 1 receivers, provided his technique continues to develop and he can redirect well enough to cover for his speed in man-to-man situations. Winfield (5-9, 180) is the oldest player on the roster (age 35) but is such a good tackler he's still dangerous in the slot when healthy -- which he wasn't last year, thanks to a neck strain and then a broken collarbone. An ideal situation would have him playing only in the nickel defense, with the speedy third-round draft pick Robinson (5-10, 199) continuing his ascent to start on the left side as a rookie. The Central Florida product is extremely confident, doesn't come across as someone who will be overwhelmed by NFL competition and took starter's reps by the end of minicamp. If the Vikings decide he's not ready, the fallback is Carr (5-10, 182), a seven-year veteran who battled injuries last season and got $125,000 in bonuses on a one-year deal. He's 29 and probably just a third or fourth corner at this stage, though. The Vikings traded up to select Smith (6-2, 214) at No. 29 overall and expect him to start immediately. He's tough, smart and versatile enough to play close to the line or back off the hash, which could prove valuable if new coordinator Alan Williams incorporates fewer two-deep looks into the scheme.
No starting spot is more wide open than the safety opposite Smith, who worked more at free than strong as the offseason progressed. Sanford (5-10, 200) is an excellent special-teamer, started last season and brings a physical presence to run support. But he has a tendency to get off his landmark and take false steps in coverage, making him a liability when the ball's in the air. Raymond (6-1, 202) is the opposite -- a converted corner who can run with most tight ends but was a weak, tentative tackler as a rookie. He made an effort in the offseason to add muscle and address his hydration issues. The Vikings could end up using a situation-based combination, perhaps even putting a third safety on the field against bigger personnel packages. Blanton (6-1, 200) is making his own conversion from corner and impressed from the get-go, but his most immediate impact probably will have to come on special teams. Frampton (5-11, 205) is just a special-teamer. There's a lot of competition for the last couple of cornerback jobs, too. Burton (5-11, 190) is an outside corner only and struggled in limited opportunities as a rookie. Sherels (5-10, 175) is a pretty good tackler for his size but not somebody the Vikings want to use regularly in the slot, and they've actively sought alternatives in the return game. Bowman (6-1, 196) was buried on the depth chart throughout the offseason and needs to earn his spot on special teams.
Sendejo (6-1, 225) has spent time on three teams' active rosters and has some upside as a special teamer. Jones (6-0, 195) has bounced around, too -- he's already 26 and has yet to appear in a regular-season game -- but catches punts well enough to be a darkhorse there. Felder (6-1, 200) got a $7,500 bonus as an undrafted rookie out of Nicholls State and has an intriguing frame for an outside corner. Gatewood (5-11, 188) and Taylor (5-9, 165), the former college basketball player, are long shots.
One NFL scout's take on ... Harrison Smith
"A good athlete, but not a great athlete. I thought he was a good, quality safety. I think he could play in our scheme. Obviously, I think he could play in theirs, because he's got good size and range. He's going to be a good football player. I don't know if he's going to be a Pro Bowl player. But in a good year -- he might be able to grow into that over the course of his career. He's such a smart kid. He's got everything together as a person. I thought that was a good pick."
-- AFC personnel director
A confluence of circumstances left this as one of the worst units in the NFL last season. The return of Cook and Winfield should help, as should the additions of Smith and Robinson. But it remains to be seen how Williams' scheme evolves -- and whether he, unlike Fred Pagac a year ago, can get his defensive backs to play it correctly.