MINNEAPOLIS -- On Monday, the Minnesota Vikings officially picked up their fifth-year option on safety Harrison Smith, finalizing a long-expected move with a player who could turn out to be one of general manager Rick Spielman's most lustrous draft successes.
The first of Spielman's trades back into the first round was to acquire Smith with the 29th pick in 2012. He returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns as a rookie, and after missing half of the 2013 season with turf toe, he blossomed into one of the league's best safeties last season, tying for third in the NFL with five interceptions and posting three sacks. If Smith stays healthy, a long-term deal for the 26-year-old is such a certainty that, according to a league source, the Vikings capped their pursuit of New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty at $8 million per year earlier this offseason, knowing they needed to budget to pay Smith, too.
That the Vikings made a run at McCourty (and former Denver safety Rahim Moore), though, showed the team's clear interest in upgrading the spot next to Smith after what amounted to an open audition for the job last summer. Robert Blanton eventually won that spot, and while he was serviceable for much of the season, there were signs at several junctures the Vikings weren't sold on what they had -- like when they signed 34-year-old Chris Crocker in the middle of training camp, and gave Andrew Sendejo the starting spot even after Blanton returned from injury at the end of the season.
But without a veteran pickup sometime between now and July, it appears the Vikings will once again head into training camp with a casting call for Smith's partner. They signed former Bengals safety Taylor Mays to a one-year deal, reuniting him with coach Mike Zimmer, and Spielman showed some excitement with undrafted free-agent addition Anthony Harris. The Vikings, though, won't have a proven commodity next to Smith, and will be hoping someone develops into a mainstay at the spot.
Not that that's necessarily a bad thing -- or even out of the ordinary for how NFL teams are forced to operate at certain positions. During his final press conference of draft weekend on Saturday, Spielman went out of his way to state his excitement about Antone Exum, a converted cornerback who mostly played special teams after the Vikings took him in the sixth round last year. Exum ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash and completed the 20-yard shuttle in 4.13 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last year; his 40 time was one-hundredth of a second slower than Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and his short shuttle time was three-hundredths of a second faster. The Vikings gave Exum some time with the first-team defense during their offseason program last year, and Spielman's unsolicited comment would serve to suggest Exum will have a chance to claim the job this year.
"We’re very excited also about the progress he has made," Spielman said. "With [Robert] Blanton and [Andrew] Sendejo, I think we know what those guys are, but you know Exum is someone we're definitely going to be keeping a close eye on and see how well he comes along from last year."
It isn't hard to read between the lines of Spielman's comments and infer the Vikings aren't satisfied with the status quo next to Smith. Their two main avenues to improve the spot from the outside, however, either proved to be too expensive or not deep enough to dissuade the Vikings from going in another direction.
The more NFL offenses spread themselves out and run the ball from multiple-receiver sets, safeties become more important. The Vikings have a wellspring of confidence in the ability of Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray -- two proven instructors with 22 years of defensive coordinator experience between them -- to develop cornerbacks and safeties. And they should, because barring a late addition to the roster, it appears internal development will be the Vikings' main means to solidify the spot next to Smith this year.