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Spielman Ready to Watch Vikings Safeties Compete Opposite Harrison Smith

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —The Vikings return every starter on defense from 2015, but there is one spot where the competition is bound to be fierce.

Minnesota signed Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith to a multiyear contract extension in June, something Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said was the team's top priority this offseason.

Yet with training camp on the horizon, Spielman recently told the starting spot next to him is up for grabs.

"We're going to have a lot of depth there and a lot of competition for who's going to start [with] Harrison Smith," Spielman said.

The Vikings have multiple options, ranging from players who have been with the team for a few years and also a fresh face in the secondary.

Andrew Sendejo started 13 games at safety last season and was second on the team with 100 tackles tallied by coaches. Spielman said the Vikings had Sendejo's versatility in mind when it came time to re-sign him.

"He has value on defense but might be our best special teams player," Spielman said. "If he's not the starter, you know you have a Pro Bowl-caliber player on special teams. 

"If he is the starter, we went 11-5 with him last year," he added.

Veteran Michael Griffin was added via free agency this offseason after spending nine seasons in Tennessee. The 31-year-old is a two-time Pro Bowler.

Spielman noted that while Sendejo brings a physical aspect to the field, Griffin is strong in pass coverage.

"He's a little bit of an older player but still has a lot of value in the passing game," Spielman said of Griffin. "He's a little bit more athletic and has a bit better range on the back end, where Andrew Sendejo is a hammer who sets the tone on defense."

Antone Exum, Jr. and Anthony Harris each started a pair of games in 2015. Exum was a sixth-round pick in 2014; Harris was picked up as an undrafted free agent last season.

Spielman said both players are also candidates to start opposite Smith.

"Antone Exum may be the most athletic safety that we have overall," Spielman said. "He has really started to get more comfortable in the scheme and is more comfortable making checks and calls on the back end.

"He had an opportunity to see some action in games last year and really became a good special teams player for us last year," he added.

Spielman said that Harris is "another really smart player who can play both free safety and strong safety."

The Vikings also added Jayron Kearse to the mix after drafting him in the seventh round this past April.

The 6-foot-4 Kearse helped lead Clemson to the national title game last season.

"(He) a tall, linear free safety who is very similar to George Iloka, who played for Coach Zim' in Cincinnati," Spielman said. "He's almost 6-foot-5 and has tremendous range … he's going to push for a spot on this roster as well."

There's no question Smith is entrenched as one of the starters at safety for the Vikings.

But Spielman admitted that seeing who snatches the spot next to him will be one of the most intriguing position battles in Mankato.

"That's what makes training camp so exciting," Spielman said. "You spend all offseason trying to put together the most competitive 90-man roster you can. 

"We've got a taste of what we have with our football team through the offseason but we haven't put the pads on yet," he added. "We're looking forward to getting down to Mankato."

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