MINNEAPOLIS -- For all of the talk about the Minnesota Vikings' safety spot next to Harrison Smith being an open competition, the team hasn't really operated that way. Robert Blanton, who started 13 games a year ago, has worked next to Smith since organized team activities and has claimed all of the first-team snaps in two preseason games so far.
Behind Blanton, Antone Exum Jr.seems to be doing everything he can to change the status quo. He scooped up a fumble in the Vikings' first preseason game, and was there to corral an overthrown Jameis Winston pass on Saturday night, returning it 34 yards to set up the Vikings' second touchdown.
The interception was the first Winston has thrown in the NFL. Should the first pick in the 2015 draft become a star, the pick might make Exum the answer to a trivia question. He hopes it will lead to something more substantive in the short term.
"“I hope that it starts talk [about me],” Exum said. “I think that that’s a big part of the game, being able to be around the ball. That’s something that I pride myself in, being able to make that big play that can spark the game. Being able to be around the ball and being able to come up with it. I feel like that’s a quality I have.”
The converted cornerback's coverage skills were a large part of the reason why the Vikings took him in the sixth round in 2014, and general manager Rick Spielman pointed out after the draft how much Exum had improved in the offseason. He has admitted he needed to mature after his first year in the league, and coach Mike Zimmer said early in training camp that Exum was one of the Vikings' rookies that "didn't really know how to act" last year. This season, Zimmer said, Exum has "grown up a lot.
"Now it seems important to him," Zimmer said last month. "It seems like he’s understanding what the coaches want, want we want to do, what [defensive backs coach] Jerry [Gray]'s trying to get done with him. He is a good athlete, he is improving every day, he’s working real hard. He has proven to me that it’s a lot more important to him."
Big plays alone likely won't earn Exum the starting job next to Smith; Zimmer is fond of telling his defensive backs their main priority is to "not let your guy catch the ball," and the coach often says turnovers alone don't constitute a good day for a defensive back if they're combined with coverage lapses. After his interception, Exum also was in position to make a tackle on Bobby Rainey, only to miss his dive at the running back's ankles.
"Those are things he’s going to have to improve on," Zimmer said. "Safeties have to be able to tackle. But he’s a very good athlete and we just have to get him disciplined.”
When Blanton won the job last year, it came with a tepid endorsement from Zimmer, who said the safety made fewer mistakes than anyone else. If Exum measures up in that regard, big plays could eventually tip the competition in his direction.