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Sanford pushing Johnson in safety battle

MANKATO, Minn. -- We spent plenty of time this offseason discussing the safety position throughout the NFC North, and it doesn't seem so long ago that we considered St. Louis Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe a candidate to sign somewhere within the division.

Atogwe re-signed with the Rams, and since then we've discussed the Chicago Bears' combination of Chris Harris and Danieal Manning/Major Wright. We've touched on the situation behind Louis Delmas in Detroit and previewed the likely ascendance of Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett. So on Wednesday morning, I took some time to check out the Minnesota Vikings' competition between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford.

First, we should make clear that the Vikings appear to be leaving veteran Madieu Williams alone at free safety. Sanford got work there during the offseason, but at this point it appears Williams' job is safe. My sense of the strong safety position is that the Vikings would like Johnson to win it but are hoping Sanford provides the needed push to elevate his game.

Johnson was a high second-round draft pick in 2008 and has all of the physical and mental tools. But let me ask you this: How many plays can you remember him making over the past two seasons?

In 31 career games, Johnson has been credited with nine passes defensed, two interceptions and no forced fumbles. It's clear the Vikings are looking for more than that rate of production when the preseason opens Saturday at St. Louis.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Johnson is further along than he was last summer in training camp, but indicated his practice performance is only part of the evaluation process.

"The thing for him will be what happens in the games," Frazier said. "Will he pull the trigger when he has to? Will he get his hands on some balls? Will he make the tackles that he has to make? That is going to be the big test for him. We are looking forward to it and so is he. ..."

If not, the Vikings are giving Sanford a long look during training camp. He was working with the first team Wednesday during team drills, and if nothing else, Sanford offers the Vikings a diverse alternative. While Johnson is often in the background, Sanford is the type of safety who runs all over the field looking for someone to hit. He probably makes a few coaches nervous in coverage, but certainly has the presence that Johnson hasn't shown in game situations.

"As long as you're on the field, your job is to make plays," Sanford said. "It gives you a chance to have a chance. I made a lot of plays on special teams last year, and it gave me a shot on defense. I'm trying to take advantage of that opportunity."

Indeed, Sanford ranked third on the team last season with 19 special-teams tackles while also forcing a fumble. If Johnson falters this preseason, Sanford will be ready to provide a full -- if not perfect -- effort in place of him.