EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings combined a mixture of veteran experience and youth at the safety position in 2021.
Minnesota returned All-Pro safety Harrison Smith for his 10th NFL season, and signed Xavier Woods after he played his first four pro seasons with Dallas.
The Vikings drafted Camryn Bynum out of Cal and converted the cornerback to safety, which worked out well for the youngster. Also among the position group were 2020 additions Josh Metellus (sixth round) and Myles Dorn (undrafted).
The Vikings weathered another season of COVID-19 protocols and called on Bynum to step in as a starter in Weeks 9 and 10 after Smith tested positive on the morning of Minnesota's game in Baltimore.
Pro-football-reference.com has provided advanced defensive stats since 2018 that are a decent metric of summarizing cornerbacks' play. While some may dispute when a DB should be assessed with a snap in coverage (a zone may or may not tell the full story), here's a look at passer rating allowed by Vikings safeties who played at least 150 defensive snaps:
Bynum: 20.3 (4-of-8 passing, 31 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT)
Smith: 98.7 (29-of-40 passing, 368 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT)
Woods: 110.4 (30-of-50 passing, 525 yards, 6 TDs and 3 INTs)
Woods provided the experience the Vikings hoped for in the secondary, but he also was targeted most by opponents who likely veered away from a six-time Pro Bowler in Smith, who played more at the line of scrimmage than Woods.
Bynum flashed in an extremely small sample size.
View the best safety photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.
Notable Number: 114
Smith totaled a career-high 114 tackles (83 solo), which ranked second on the team behind linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Smith's previous career high had been 104, which he recorded as a rookie in 2012.
Bynum answered the bell after finding out the morning of the Ravens game that he'd need to make his first NFL start.
He nabbed his first career interception, picking off 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson with a savvy play down the middle of the field.
When he saw the Ravens offense set up, Bynum immediately recognized it as a look he'd seen all week during Vikings practices. He detailed the play for media members, noting that the defense was in middle-open coverage, so he expected Baltimore to try attacking the middle of the field.
"So as soon as I saw the quarterback look me off and then go back to the front side, that's when I knew I was free game to make a break, and that's when me and Xavier, we both had it viced and if I didn't make the play, he would have made the play on that," Bynum explained. "So that was just a good job on both safeties, and the whole secondary doing [its] job was able to free me up for the play."
The Vikings ended up falling just short in the Week 9 contest, but Bynum's big play helped give them a chance.
114 tackles (83 solo), 3.0 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 7 passes defensed, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble; started all 15 games he played; on field for 1,049 of Minnesota's 1,280 defensive snaps (86.8 percent)
108 tackles (72 solo), 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles; started all 17 games he played; on field for all 1,280 defensive snaps (100 percent)
28 tackles (20 solo), 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed; started 3 of 14 games he played; on field for 211 defensive snaps (17.5 percent)
13 tackles (8 solo), 1 pass defensed; played in 16 games (0 starts); on field for 54 defensive snaps (4.5 percent)
3 special teams tackles (1 solo), played in 9 games (0 starts); did not play any defensive snaps
The highest highs
1. Bynum helps Vikings win in home state
Bynum made his second straight start against the Chargers in Week 10, and he made the most of it.
Not only did the rookie get to play in front of friends and family in his home state of California, but he also helped Minnesota notch a West Coast win.
Bynum secured his first career sack against Chargers QB Justin Herbert, and he also recorded a pass defensed and a tackle for loss.
2. Woods has big day against former team
Picking a highest high proved challenging because a number of the safeties' big plays occurred mostly in games Minnesota ultimately lost.
While individual stats don't hold as much weight if the Vikings didn't accomplish a team win, it's tough to deny the performance Woods had against the Cowboys in Week 8. On Halloween night and the prime-time stage, he had a spook-tacular outing against his former team.
In addition to leading the team in tackles with eight, Woods intercepted QB Cooper Rush early in the second quarter. The turnover unfortunately didn't result in any points for Minnesota but did stop the Cowboys drive.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Woods recorded a strip sack of Rush, and linebacker Anthony Barr was able to recover the fumble.
The offense once again failed to capitalize, though, and the Vikings ultimately fell 20-16.
The lowest low
1. Smith sidelined by COVID-19
Bynum filled in admirably when Smith – who disclosed earlier in the year he was unvaccinated – tested positive for coronavirus.
But nevertheless, it's always less than idea to lose your top safety for back-to-back games. Smith already was with the team in Baltimore when he received the positive test, and he later thanked the Wilf family for providing him with a private flight back to Minnesota.
Smith told media members he largely felt symptom-free, but the protocols at the time dictated that he remain away from the team for 10 days.
2 pressing questions for 2022
1.Will the Vikings bring back Woods?
Minnesota signed Woods to a one-year deal, meaning he's slated to become a free agent in March. Since the Vikings will be under new leadership, it will be interesting to see if the powers that be opt to re-sign Woods or move another direction.
There were certainly ups and downs from the veteran defensive back, and it's worth keeping an eye on.
2. Will young safeties make a jump this next season?
Bynum certainly showed promise in his first season, especially considering the Vikings converted him from cornerback. Hopefully, the former Golden Bear will make another jump headed into Year 2.
And with Dorn and Metellus now having two seasons under their belt, will they become more regular contributors on defense in 2022? Especially intriguing is Metellus, who received more opportunities this past year, including in the nickel when Mackensie Alexander missed the regular-season finale.