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Vikings look for versatile safeties

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings could be in the market for safety help this spring, and they're asking players to do much more than they used to. For that, they can thank Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings could be in the market for safety help this spring, and they're asking players to do much more than they used to. For that, they can thank Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley.

The preponderance of multiple-receiver sets, dominant wideouts who require extra attention, shifty slot receivers and athletic tight ends has forced many NFL teams to ditch the archaic distinction between free and strong safety. The Vikings now are looking for players who are both strong enough to play near the line of scrimmage and quick enough to help against spread offenses. And a year after they traded up to snag Harrison Smith at the end of the first round, they could look to the draft for another versatile safety.

Jamarca Sanford, who took advantage of Mistral Raymond's ankle injury and became a solid safety in his fourth season, will become an unrestricted free agent next month. The Vikings were scheduled to meet with Sanford's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, at the NFL scouting combine, and general manager Rick Spielman said the team appreciated Sanford's development as both a player and leader.

But if that development prices Sanford out of the Vikings' range, they could try to find another player to complement Smith, Raymond and Robert Blanton. That player, Spielman said, would have to have the broad skill set the Vikings have been courting in safeties lately.

"It makes a difference on your back end, especially if that guy is going to be the quarterback of your defense from there," he said. "Our scheme is interchangeable. We go free and strong, and when we're looking for guys, they have to be able to do both."

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The Vikings were mediocre against the pass in 2012, allowing 3,908 yards and 28 touchdowns while intercepting just 10 passes. But there was improvement compared to 2011, when Minnesota allowed quarterbacks to post a collective 107.6 rating, and problems at safety was a key part of that.

Smith was the NFL's sixth-best safety against pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, and Sanford did a decent job, finishing 25th among 50 safeties who played at least 60 percent of their team's defensive snaps.

Sanford also was solid against the run, giving the Vikings a reliable option when Smith occasionally overpursued and got out of position.

"He's one of those late-round guys (a seventh-round draft pick in 2009) that has really developed," Spielman said. "We're very pleased with where he's at."

Should Sanford leave, his development likely would give the Vikings confidence their coaching staff can bring along another draft pick. Safety doesn't figure to be at the top of the team's priority list in the draft, and Spielman liked what he saw from Blanton in small doses last season, but the Vikings could be looking for depth.

Raymond started just three games last season, and couldn't overtake Sanford for playing time once he returned from his injury; he only played more than 50 percent of the Vikings' snaps twice after he came back.

The 2013 draft is seen as a deep one at a number of positions, and safety is no exception. Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the combine there are "five or six" starting safeties available, and many of those players understand how their responsibilities have changed.

"I think people are starting to appreciate safeties more, now that tight ends are turning into freaks and controlling the middle of the field," said Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who figures to be the top safety drafted. "So you've got to have a safety who can cover and come up and hit."

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The Vikings found one of those players last year in Smith. They wouldn't mind digging up another one this year.

"In today's NFL, the way offenses spread you out, if you just have a guy who's one-dimensional, you can get exposed," said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, himself a safety with the Bears' Super Bowl-winning 1985 team. "So people are going, it seems, to more of the hybrid-type safeties, to guys who have some cover skills and have some ability to play the football in deep defense but maybe not as aggressive in the run game. So it's changed."

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