Casting call: Vikings' annual search for safety next to Harrison Smith is on

MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the Minnesota Vikings' two safety positions -- the one occupied by Harrison Smith -- has been a bulwark for the team's defense over the last four years, and now that the Vikings gave Smith a five-year, $51.25 million contract last week, they can rest knowing the spot is likely settled as long as Smith is healthy.

The Vikings' search for Smith's counterpart, however, has become almost a rite of summer. They've tried options next to Smith in all shapes and sizes, from veterans lured out of retirement to draft picks the team has tried to develop for the role. This year, the Vikings gave Andrew Sendejo a new four-year deal, signed former Tennessee Titans Pro Bowler Michael Griffin and used a seventh-round pick on 6-foot-4 Clemson safety Jayron Kearse. And yet, the competition remains open.

"It’s still a work in progress. We’re trying to look at all the different guys," coach Mike Zimmer said last week. "You know Griffin is still learning. I like some of the things that Kearse is doing. You know (Antone) Exum is athletic. Anthony Harris very seldom makes mistakes and Sendejo is solid like he usually is. So, we just have to keep going. One thing I try not to do, especially in OTAs where we’re not in pads, is try to jump to some kind of conclusion of who should be the starter. I’ll kind of let that play out in camp.”

Zimmer talked in February about how Smith can be even better if he has the right safety next to him, and as much as the Vikings like to move Smith around in their defensive formation, it figures the ideal counterpart for Smith is someone who can hold his own in coverage. Griffin, at his best, has been that kind of safety, and both Exum and Harris seem to be better-suited to play in coverage than in the box. The Vikings ideally want safeties who are interchangeable, to help disguise their defense, but finding another player with the range of skills that Smith has is a tough assignment. In the meantime, a safety with strong cover skills would help the Vikings do even more with Smith.

"I think what’s really important for me is playing on a defense of guys that want to go make plays and want to do their job, and that’s what we have," Smith said last week. "It doesn’t matter who’s in the game. That’s just how our team is built. I’m very fortunate to be a part of, not only a defense but an entire team like that."

Perhaps one of these years, the Vikings will have both of their safety spots settled by summertime. It appears, though, that they'll be doing the same thing next month in Mankato, Minn., that they've done the last several years: searching for the right player next to Smith.

"Everybody is making plays, everybody is doing a lot of good things," Smith said. "I think we’re all working together well. We’re learning from each other, we’ve just got to keep building on that."