As our off-season discussions have been evolving over the past several weeks there has been one position that has been listed as an offseason "need" frequently here in articles and comments at the Daily Norseman: safety. While Harrison Smith was mysteriously left out of the Pro Bowl and didn't receive enough media votes to make it on the All-Pro squad, his status on the roster has never really been in question. Rather, it was Robert Blanton who has been receiving frequent fan criticism after securing the starting strong safety spot in training camp. But how did he fare in his first season as a starter, and should the Vikings already be looking to bring in more competition to find an upgrade?
Well first, a little background on Robert Blanton. He played college ball at Notre Dame and was a former teammate of Harrison Smith, although he did not play safety then. He eventually became a starting corner-back for the Fighting Irish, playing in 50 games, 26 of which he started. He amassed a total of 194 tackles, including 19.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 23 pass deflections, and eight interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. He was drafted by the Vikings in the 5th round of the 2012 draft with the intention of converting him to the safety position. Here is a great pre-draft breakdown of Robert Blanton over at SB Nation's Colts blog, Stampede Blue. You should go over there and read the whole thing, but I found this snippet pretty interesting:
During his Combine interview, Blanton talked about having three Defensive Coordinators in four years, and playing in two different schemes. His first two years were spent in a blitz-happy, almost exclusive man-to-man coverage, which is where I think Blanton excelled. He has good size (6'0", 208), but struggled tackling in those first two seasons. Enter the new coaching staff, which taught the defense how to tackle, and Blanton became more of a complete player. Problem was they played mostly a Cover-2 scheme, which isn't really a good fit for him. Blanton is good staying with receivers, so the presumed new scheme for the Colts should be a better fit than his final two years at ND.
That sounds awfully familiar to what he has endured with the Vikings, wouldn't you agree? During the 2012 and 2013 seasons (his first two with the Vikings) Blanton was relegated to a backup role. He played behind the likes of Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond in Frazier's zone scheme. But when Mike Zimmer took over the team last year, they switched to more of a man-to-man defensive scheme, one where Blanton does much better and lo and behold, the team parted ways with Raymond and Sanford and moved Blanton into a starting role.
In looking at Blanton's coverage statistics, Pro Football Focus has some interesting revelations. Blanton hardly saw the field his first two years, recording only 59 snaps his rookie year and 152 snaps in his 2nd year (being thrown at only 7 times that year). But in looking closely at his 2014 performance his coverage skills were vastly underrated. In coverage, Robert Blanton allowed a passer rating of 88.2 an average number that ranked 26th out of 59 safeties who played at least 50% of their team's snaps. While he was in coverage he was targeted once every 21 snaps, the 10th best ratio out of 60 safeties. He also allowed a reception every 36.1 snaps, the 9th best ratio. Granted, he is the starting strong safety and his role is primarily as a run defender, but those are encouraging numbers. His 505 coverage snaps only ranked 38th most out of 60 safeties, but the point is, when he was tasked with playing coverage he was at least league average or better. Here is one of Blanton's best plays in coverage against the Panthers that results in a pass deflection. I don't know why Cam Newton tried to force the ball in there, but Blanton does a good job staying tight in his coverage and making a play on the ball.
Pro Football Focus graded Blanton's overall coverage +0.9 on the year, which was ranked 26th out of 59 safeties. He also recorded his first ever interception this year, being in the right place at the right time to pick off an overthrown ball from Kyle Orton in Buffalo.
Again, coverage is not the main role for Blanton as the starting strong safety, so how did he do as a run defender and tackler? Well in looking at his tackling efficiency in the run game, he was excellent. Tackling efficiency is measured by the total number of attempted tackles the player makes per each missed tackle. In that metric, Blanton scores an obscenely high 20.7, fourth highest among starting safeties (for reference, Harrison Smith's tackling efficiency was only 9.7, ranked 22nd best). Blanton was tied for 10th fewest missed tackles (only missing 3 tackles all year). He also recorded 20 stops on the year, tied for 9th most among safeties. Of course it also depends on how many total snaps he played in run defense, but his run stop % is also pretty good at 5.3% (ranked 14th best out of 54 safeties).
While many fans may remember Blanton getting trucked by Eddie Lacy in Green Bay, that one play is not really representative of Blanton's total work in the run game, as the stats above would imply. Overall, Pro Football Focus graded Blanton's run defense in 2014 a +6.8, the 4th highest run defense grade of any safety in the NFL. To help illustrate how valuable he is in the run game, here he is in back to back plays in the red zone helping keep the Jets from scoring a touchdown. They settled for a field goal after that series.
While Robert Blanton didn't have an All-Pro year by any means, 2014 was his first year as a starter in the NFL after spending his first two years converting from corner-back to safety, and all things considered, as a former 5th round draft pick, I think he looked pretty good. At worst, Blanton performed as a "league average" NFL safety. Pro Football Focus also graded him with an overall grade of +8.8, which was the 16th best grade out of 59 safeties who played at least 50% of their team's snaps. I believe Blanton has even more room to improve and grow, and I trust that Zimmer will be able to continue his development. On the whole, in 15 starts, Robert Blanton had 72 solo tackles, 3 passes defended, 1 interception and a fumble recovery (better numbers than either Mistral Raymond or Jamarca Sanford the previous 2 seasons). Therefore, I do not have safety very high on the list of needs for the Vikings this off-season.