The Minnesota Vikings will have no shortage of positional battles at training camp this summer, but the most intense fight could be at strong safety, where three players are vying to start alongside free safety Harrison Smith.
As the 2013 calendar flips from July to August, NFL depth charts will do some flipping of their own as teams put on the pads and start hitting for the first time since last season.
While the Vikings will be down in Mankato through Aug. 14, the battle for the starting strong safety spot between Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton may go right down to the last week of the preseason.
Minnesota will have competition all over the field, particularly at wide receiver and on both interior lines, but whereas those battles will be for depth spots and for determining a pecking order for getting reps, the battle to start at strong safety will determine who is on the field for the majority of snaps.
It's an interesting trio of players the Vikings have squaring off; they all have virtually the same size and speed and were all late-round picks by Minnesota in their respective draft years. None of the three has a ceiling as high that of the free safety Smith, but each looks like they could be a solid starter if given the chance.
Camp begins with Sanford as the starter, with Raymond the backup and Blanton third in line. Let's take a look at each player in three different categories and list what each player needs to do to try to lock down the starting job.
A work in progress. Like both Raymond and Blanton, Sanford is better against the run than the pass. Sanford took a 56-yard pass-interference penalty against the Detroit Lions last season and dropped a sure interception against the Chicago Bears.
Sanford had no interceptions last year and has just two in his two seasons as a starter. That has to improve on a defense that simply needs to see a spike in the takeaways department.
At 5'11", Sanford is two inches shorter than both Raymond and Blanton, and that can be a factor given how many times the Vikings face big receivers like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.
Sanford has improved in his ability to stay with receivers, he just needs to make more plays when the ball is in the air.
Raymond has one pick in his two seasons with the Vikings.
As a rookie, he often looked a bit lost when trying to stay with receivers. Raymond beat out Sanford during training camp last season, as the Vikings coaches thought he could do a better job in pass defense.
Raymond made huge strides between his first and second year in the league. Compared to when he was a rookie, Raymond didn't look overwhelmed in pass coverage last season. He has shown a bit more ability than Sanford at staying with receivers, but he too has to become better at making plays when the ball is in the air.
Raymond suffered an ankle injury against the San Francisco 49ers last season that forced him to miss six games and he never got back in the starting lineup. By the end of last season, he and Sanford were basically sharing the job.
The scouting report on Blanton coming out of Notre Dame was that he was a tough kid who was good against the run, but lacked polish in his pass defense.
The Vikings didn't hesitate to switch Blanton from cornerback (where he played in college) to safety, essentially confirming what many draft experts said about Blanton heading into the 2012 draft: that he didn't have the quick hips and fast feet required to play cornerback in the NFL.
Blanton had eight interceptions at Notre Dame and spent last season learning how to play a new position. Blanton filled in nicely in 2012 when Raymond was hurt.
He's a smart kid who's quickly learning the angles and adjusting to the speed of the pro game.
Pass Defense Summary
None of the three are great pass defenders. Blanton probably has the highest ceiling of the group, as he showed in college that he can make interceptions. The Vikings are desperate to generate more turnovers on defense, so all three players will be watched closely in camp on how they defend the pass.
Sanford is a solid 200 pounds and a bulldog against the run. He's one of the highest energy guys on the Minnesota roster and his attitude is infectious. Sanford made some big hits and splash plays against the run last season, causing four fumbles.
While Raymond might not be as vocal as Sanford, he's just as tenacious against the run. Raymond shows a fearlessness against the run that all great tackling safeties seem to have; he's willing to throw his body into anything if it means making the play.
He certainly doesn't have to take a backseat to either Sanford or Raymond against the run. Blanton was known as a big hitter at Notre Dame, and his aggressive style against the run made him a fan favorite. He's had to learn the different angles of playing the run from the safety spot rather than at corner, but he's adjusted just fine.
Run Defense Summary
All three players are above average against the run. They are all aggressive to the ball and have a thirst for contact at the point of attack. Teamed with Harrison Smith, any of the three would form one of the better tackling safety duos in the league.
This is where Sanford has a clear advantage over Raymond and Blanton heading into camp.
At 28 years old, Sanford is the veteran of the group and one of the vocal leaders of the Vikings defense. Sanford is a special teams ace and a team-first guy at all times. He never sulked or showed a poor attitude when Raymond beat him out last season, and the way he carried himself at that time impressed his coaches.
Raymond has an incredible back story, overcoming long odds to even play college football, let alone in the NFL. Raymond is a tenacious player, and he's gotten much better in the two seasons he's been with the Vikings. He came back from his ankle injury last year and was productive down the stretch when sharing time with Sanford.
Perhaps even more physical than Sanford and Raymond, Blanton plays football at 100 miles an hour, and he may have to learn to reel that in just a little to become a better player.
For Blanton to beat out the other two for the starting job, he's going to have to prove to Viking coaches that he is a better pass defender than Raymond or Sanford, as all three are good against the run. Blanton has a high football IQ and is as competitive as they come.
The truth of the matter is that there isn't very much that separates these three players.
Sanford has an edge in that he's become a vocal leader on the field and it's his job to lose. The Vikings coaches value Sanford as a special teams player, so they may want to keep him fresh in that role and give reps to the other two players at safety.
The bottom line is that barring any huge surprises, all three will make the team and whoever makes more plays in camp will probably win the job. In the end, all three will see time in the Vikings secondary this season. All three will be used on special teams as well, since they are three of the most aggressive, passionate players on the roster.
The guess here is that Sanford begins the season as the starter. Who finishes there is anybody's guess.