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Blanton vs Sendejo vs Exum

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The Daily Norseman goes back in time to determine what happened with the Vikings strong safety position at the end of last year. And what does the team's handling of the safety position say about the 2015 roster?

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Awhile back I took a look at safety Robert Blanton and came to the conclusion that he had an underrated season in 2015. Ultimately, I remain optimistic about his chances to grow in only his 2nd year as a starter next to Harrison Smith which would only improve the Vikings young secondary. It was brought to my attention then that many fans think that Blanton performed poorly and that he was benched in the final few weeks of the season for Andrew Sendejo. I decided to do a little digging to see if he was in fact benched for Sendejo, or if he was instead replaced primarily due to injury. There was quite the debate on the topic in the comment section of that original article, and the issue popped up again on Twitter recently. So I feel it’s time to settle the score!

From Week 1 through Week 14, Robert Blanton was the starting strong safety after “winning” the competition out of training camp. It’s worth pointing out that Zimmer’s comments about the strong safety position coming out of training camp were not those of high praise, saying:

"Strong safety is Robert Blanton, OK?" then Zimmer continued, “He probably made less mistakes than anybody," Zimmer said of Blanton. "He's got some cover skills. All those safeties, probably didn't see them enough because of the injuries or whatever. But Robert's a good kid, a smart kid, we'll see how he does. Hopefully, he'll do well."

How well Blanton did is certainly up for debate, although Pro Football Focus certainly liked what they saw out of him, giving him high marks as a run defender and average marks in pass coverage. So what happened during the final three weeks of the year? According to Pro Football Reference, Blanton started only 13 games in 2014, but played in 15, while Andrew Sendejo started in 3 games, playing primarily special teams in the other 13. So what happened in the final three weeks of the year?

The first place to look for answers is the official NFL Injury Report. Blanton injured his “leg” during a week 14 home game against the New York Jets. According to the Star Tribune report on the matter:

“Blanton injured his left leg during overtime tacking Jets wide receiver Eric Decker on a 26-yard gain. He missed the remaining four plays, marking the first time Blanton wasn’t on the field this season. Andrew Sendejo replaced Blanton for the final four defensive snaps.”

Blanton was subsequently listed with an ankle injury during the preparation for their Week 15 game and “did not participate in practice” at all that week. He was listed as “out” against the Lions in Detroit and was officially inactive during the game. Andrew Sendejo started in his place that game playing 43 out of 51 snaps with Antone Exum seeing his first ever game action as well.

The following week, both Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo show up on the injury list. In Blanton’s case his ankle injury limited him in practice all week and was listed as “questionable” to start the game. Sendejo was also listed on the report with a thumb injury, but he was a full practice participant and listed as probable to start. The Vikings PR twitter officially announced that Sendejo would start in the place of Blanton once again in Week 16 a few hours before the game, along with several other injury replacements. Given the context of the other players also mentioned in that tweet, it would be safe to assume that Sendejo started his second game in place of Blanton due to injury concerns. That said, Blanton was listed as “active” during the week 16 game in Miami, despite having the “questionable” tag all week. Even though Blanton was officially active, it’s not unusual for players with injuries to be listed as active to have on hand in case of injury to their replacements, and in this case with Sendejo having an injured thumb, it would make sense to activate Blanton in an emergency role in case Sendejo further injured his thumb. Vikings beat writers weighed on this topic both before and after the game.

Ben Goessling, over at ESPN said this prior to kickoff:

Safety Robert Blanton will be in the lineup, though the Vikings listed Andrew Sendejo as the starter next to Harrison Smith while Blanton returns from a leg injury.

Master Tesfatsion, over at the Star Tribune also said this prior to kickoff:

Safety Robert Blanton is active, but he will not start. He was listed as questionable on Friday with an ankle/knee injury. Andrew Sendejo will receive his second straight start at strong safety. Sendejo had a solid game last week against the Lions.

Based on the context of the Vikings PR Twitter post, and Goessling and Tefatsion’s posts here, it would seem that Robert Blanton was held out of the week 16 game in Miami due to injury concerns. He was limited all week in practice and was questionable to start the game, so it’s not surprising at all that Andrew Sendejo got the start. The fact that he was active may lead some to conclude that he was benched, but neither beat writer suggests that he was benched prior to the game, and I’ve not found a single source anywhere that suggests he was benched prior to the game.

Of course, Robert Blanton did end up playing quite a bit in the Miami game, but mostly because of injury to Andrew Sendejo.

Mark Craig, over at the Star Tribune then said this after the game:

Interesting that Blanton was healthy enough to play 64 snaps, but didn’t get his starting job back after missing last week’s game because of leg injuries. Sendejo started. Not a big deal since neither one really stands out above the other. Sendejo left to be evaluated for a concussion. He was cleared and returned briefly before Blanton came back in.

Here, Mark Craig is clearly speculating on why Sendejo got the start over Blanton with the opening commentary “Interesting that…” Craig tries to connect some dots here by suggesting that since Blanton played 64 snaps in the Miami game that he must have been healthy enough to start the game. But since Sendejo actually started the game he suggests that Blanton “didn’t get his starting job back” which is essentially speculating that he was benched. But I think this ignores two big factors. First, Blanton was limited all week in practice and was listed as questionable on the injury report. And second, the Vikings were already eliminated from the playoffs at this point in the season. I would argue that the Vikings were playing it safe with Blanton, because why risk further injury to a starter in what was essentially a meaningless game? The fact that he played 64 snaps against Miami in Week 16, in my opinion, was out of necessity because their only other option was rookie Antone Exum once Sendejo was injured himself. I don’t think the fact that he played 64 snaps says anything other than the Vikings had to play a less than 100% Robert Blanton because they didn’t have any other options. I would argue that Blanton was probably listed as active because he was healthy enough to play in an emergency, but was not healthy enough to start.

Brian Murphy over at the Pioneer Press doesn’t seem to think that Blanton was benched, and he said this after the game:

Andrew Sendejo started at strong safety over Robert Blanton but was banged up and could not finish.

Given the context of information provided before the game, and what happened with injuries to Sendejo during the game, I think the best conclusion to draw here is that Blanton missed Weeks 15 and 16 due to injury, not because he was “benched.”

So what happened in the final week of the season? Well, Blanton was upgraded to “probable” with his ankle injury and was a full participant in practice all week on the official injury report. Curiously, despite the supposed concussion the prior week, Andrew Sendejo was listed with only a thumb injury and was also “probable” and a full participant in practice all week too. Both players were listed as active for the game, but who got the start? Surprise, it was Andrew Sendejo! Well, it probably wasn’t a surprise, since I mentioned earlier that Sendejo started three games. But based on all the commentary, one would think that Robert Blanton would have slotted back into his starting job after being upgraded over three weeks from “out” to “questionable” to “probable”, and especially after being healthy enough to practice in full all week.

So, perhaps Mark Craig was right after all? He expands his thoughts in a Week 17 post-game article, saying:

The team’s handling of Blanton and Sendejo in recent weeks shows they place basically the same value on them. And the educated guess here is that value is backup-caliber on both of them. That doesn’t make them bad players or players without value. They’re just targets for an offseason upgrade. Blanton had played every snap of the first 13 games. He injured his leg late in the 14th game and was inactive for a week. At Miami, he was healthy enough to start, but Sendejo started. That’s not a good sign for Blanton’s long-term status as a starter. Fully healthy now, Blanton played only two snaps in a three-safety look late in the game. Sendejo is a special teams leader, not a starting safety. When Blanton won the job coming out of training camp, coach Mike Zimmer basically admitted that no one really won the job but someone had to start there.

Andrew Krammer over at ESPN puts the final nail in the coffin with these Week 17 post-game comments (bold is mine for emphasis):

Starting for the third consecutive game, Andrew Sendejo had his best outing of the three with nine tackles (five solo), including a run stop after taking Robert Blanton's job. He was sent on two blitzes, wrapping up Cutler's feet before he flipped the pass to Forte for four yards. Sendejo also dropped an interception after Cutler sailed another pass over a receiver's head and made the game-sealing tackle on 4th-and-9.

There you have it, while I believe that Blanton didn’t start weeks 15 and 16 due to injury, the beat writers certainly believe that Blanton was benched, in the final game for sure, for Andrew Sendejo. I think there is a small case to be made that perhaps the Vikings held Blanton out to get a longer look at Sendejo in a meaningless Week 17 game, but that argument isn’t as compelling to me. I think it makes the most sense to say that the Vikings held out Robert Blanton in weeks 15 and 16 due to injury, and liked enough of what they saw in Andrew Sendejo during that time to give him the start in week 17. I do think that the beat writers are correct in suggesting that the Vikings place similar value on Blanton and Sendejo at this point. As we head into training camp for the 2015 season, don’t rule out Antone Exum as being in the mix for a starting job. Rick Spielman made the following comments regarding the safety position during the team’s recent OTA sessions:

“Exum from last year, who made the conversion from corner to safety, we're very excited about the progress he has made,'' Spielman said. "Also, with Blanton and (Andrew) Sendejo I think we know what those guys are, but Exum is someone we're definitely going to be keep a close eye on.''

That’s not a ringing endorsement of either Blanton or Sendejo from the general manager. While I think that Blanton is the guy to beat, and will be the presumed starting strong safety in training camp, he’ll have to keep both Sendejo and Exum at bay and prove that he’s taken a step forward and furthered his development. The team took a look at Taylor Mays for a reason, so if Robert Blanton earns the starting spot once again this year, he’s got a lot to prove in what will be his second year as a starter and third year with the team.