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Smith's Top-Tier Talents Boosts Vikings Safeties

Any discussion involving Vikings safeties begins with Harrison Smith.

The 27-year-old will wear purple for years to come thanks to the multiyear contract extension he signed in June, a deal Smith earned with his stellar play over the past few years.

Smith, who was recently ranked as the NFL's second-best free safety by Sports Illustrated, made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 after he recorded 87 tackles by coaches' tally (56 solo), six quarterback hurries, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.

The former Notre Dame standout is known for his versatility as he can crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run and also play back in pass coverage.

Andrew Sendejo won the starting safety spot next to Smith at training camp last year and started 13 games.

Sendejo was second on the team with 100 tackles last season. He splitt one sack and had six passes defensed.

The Vikings added veteran Michael Griffin in the offseason after he spent the previous nine seasons in Tennessee.

Griffin is a two-time Pro Bowler who has 25 career interceptions. He played for Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray in Tennessee where Gray was the Titans defensive coordinator from 2011-13.

Substantial Stats

One of Smith's interceptions last season came in Week 16 against the Giants, a Minnesota win that allowed the Vikings to clinch a playoff berth.

Smith stepped in front of an Eli Manning pass and returned it 35 yards for a score, giving him a franchise-record four scores on interception returns.

Smith also had two pick-sixes in 2012 against the Cardinals and Bears before adding another one in 2014 against the Rams.

Notable Quote

With the Vikings coming off an 11-5 season and their first NFC North crown since 2009, players are hungry for more success.

Sendejo said he was proud of his teammates for their constant work ethic in the offseason.

"I think overall we just want to improve from last year," Sendejo said. "You know, every team, every year, obviously the goal is to win a Super Bowl, and it's the same way here.

"I think the way to do that is just for each player to want to improve individually from what they did last year and to help contribute wherever they can to make that run," he added.

Coach's Corner

Gray has a history of taking young players and developing them into playmakers.

The Vikings hope safety Jayron Kearse will follow that script after the drafted him in the seventh round in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Kearse, who is 6-foot-4 and the tallest defensive back on the roster, helped lead Clemson to the national title game last season.

"He's a big man, and I think he's got a shot," Gray said. "That's the good thing about Jayron, he has a big body and he's more athletic than you think.

"Hopefully during the course of training camp and the preseason, this guy kind of matures and (thinks) he deserves a chance to be on this football team," he added.

The Depth Chart

Antone Exum Jr. is entering his third season after being a 2014 sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech.

Exum played in 15 games as a rookie before appearing in a dozen more last season. Exum made two starts when injuries mounted in the secondary before also suffering an injury.

Anthony Harris was an undrafted free agent in 2015 who spent the first 12 games on the practice squad. Harris was called up late in the season and started two of the four games he played.

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