EAGAN, Minn. -- Jayron Kearse didn’t resemble the archetype of an NFL safety when the Minnesota Vikings drafted him deep in the seventh round in 2016. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, his 4.62-second 40-yard dash didn’t set him apart, but his raw size and athleticism did.
The unpolished defensive back from Clemson made his way onto the roster via special teams while he scrapped for fill-in opportunities in the secondary. His sole start as a rookie, which came in a loss at Chicago, was short-lived. Kearse was thinking too much, and it led him to make a handful of mistakes. Kearse was replaced at safety by Anthony Harris in that game.
The amount of growth Kearse underwent in four seasons has been the subject of recent praise from coaches and teammates. The safety earned his spot as a special-teams captain and has carved out a role for himself in Minnesota’s big nickel package at slot corner.
“He's got a lot of range. He’s got a lot of length,” Harris said. “He can move so when he’s out in space and not in coverage, he can be physical with the receivers but also he can help us in the run packages as well. He’s a big guy, he’s physical so he kind of gives us the balance of having a good cover guy and somebody who’s a bit bigger in stature to be in there for the run to help run support.”
While the Vikings figure out how long they’ll be without nickel corner Mackensie Alexander, who dislocated his elbow against the Atlanta Falcons, and await word on whether Mike Hughes will be ready to play against the Green Bay Packers (head coach Mike Zimmer said he has "a chance"), Minnesota has an effective replacement in Kearse, whose experience and versatility could draw him more time as the team’s No. 3 cornerback.
“Honestly I’ve played more nickel than I’ve played safety,” Kearse said. “For me, if anything it’ll be an adjustment the other way around because I’ve been on the field in actual game action the majority of the time at the nickel position rather than back deep at safety.”
The wrinkle Zimmer began to deploy routinely last year allowed the Vikings to capitalize on Kearse’s length and physicality to win matchups. It was noticeable in 2018 in a handful of goal-line packages and has become a weapon Zimmer uses to defend against three-receiver sets, like he did early against the Falcons.
“I stuck him in there earlier in the game before Mackensie got hurt just because I wanted to get a bigger guy in there,” Zimmer said. “It happened to be a run, and he did a really good job on the play and out-physicalled their slot receiver.”
Kearse’s frame forces him to play the position differently from Alexander, who is 5-foot-11. His size is somewhat of a double-edged sword. He has to focus on his lateral movement and work to play with a lower center of gravity -- however, Minnesota can use his size to help run support and his range to combat the passing attack. His versatility gives the Vikings defense the look they want against a multitude of receiver types.
“The biggest challenge is, me being a taller guy, getting in and out of breaks with short, shifty guys,” Kearse said. “That’s really the biggest thing, but that’s something I’ve been working on.
“You have the unique guys -- the Cole Beasleys, those real shifty guys -- but you have guys like we just went up against, Mohamed Sanu,” Kearse said. "These are bigger guys in the slot. That’s not too difficult for me -- he’s shifty getting in and out of the breaks, but when you go against those smaller guys, then it becomes a lot more difficult. I know over there in Green Bay, they don’t really have those short guys like that. I’m just looking forward to the challenge, and ready to get to it.”
The Packers put receivers Davante Adams (6-foot-1) and Geronimo Allison (6-foot-3) in the slot a combined on 33 snaps in the season opener against Chicago. Tight end Jimmy Graham logged 13 snaps from the same spot.
Going head-to-head with quarterback Aaron Rodgers certainly poses its share of challenges, but the big nickel role is designed for Kearse to succeed, given the way the Vikings implement safety help on the back end of the defense.
“Not very often is going to be by himself on a guy,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to get help from either the inside or the outside or wherever it is. I think understanding leverage is the best part about that, where his help is.”