EAGAN — On Halloween night, Jayron Kearse’s nightmare came true.
On October 31, 2016, Kearse got the nod to fill in for injured Andrew Sendejo. His first NFL start came at Soldier Field in Chicago — a place that has been a house of horrors for the Minnesota Vikings. On the first drive of the game, Kearse took a bad angle and Bears running back Jordan Howard blew by him for a 69-yard run, setting the tone for an ugly Minnesota loss. Kearse was replaced by Anthony Harris.
In the weeks following his faux pas, head coach Mike Zimmer said repeatedly that he believed Kearse could eventually become a good NFL player.
Three years later, Kearse has an opportunity to be a valuable part of the Vikings defense.
“He’s a guy that I would say, as he’s gotten older, he’s matured more,” Zimmer said. “He sees things a lot quicker now. I think that allows him to play a lot faster. I remember when he was a rookie…against Chicago, we played up there and he was thinking [too much] but a lot of the safeties are like that. He’s much better now, like today, I had him do a couple things that he hadn’t practiced just to see if he could do it, and he did well.”
Because of Kearse’s rare frame — 6-foot-4, 225-pounds — he doesn’t quite fit into one specific role. He’s lighter than most linebackers, taller than most safeties and not quite as quick as most cornerbacks.
But sometimes being in between can be an advantage.
Last season the former Clemson standout played 132 snaps at slot corner, 45 plays as a box safety, 13 on the defensive line and 10 as an outside corner.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins explained the challenge of facing position-less defenders.
“A hybrid guy who can cover multiple people, it disguises what your intentions are and it forces the defense to have to defend far more things,” Cousins said. “For the offense and as a quarterback I have to keep more things in my mind as to what they could be doing. I think you’re always looking to find versatile players and develop versatile players as a result, and it seems like that’s where the game is going more and more, to find guys that can do multiple things.”
Cousins is alluding to the fact that offenses are looking for multi-talented tight ends (like Irv Smith) and running backs (like Dalvin Cook) who can catch, run and block. Since the number of these players — and offensive minds who are looking to use them to gain personnel advantages — is increasing, so is the value of a player like Kearse.
Of course, it’s hard enough to play one position in the NFL, much less three. On the offensive side, the Vikings have been up front about Irv Smith’s transition to an all-around tight end being an uphill battle. But in Year 3, Kearse feels like he has come to understand the game at a much higher level than where he was that night at Soldier Field.
Part of his growth in knowledge has come from playing alongside Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith.
“We watched film together a couple times and I asked him, ‘How do you study? What do you see? What made you do this?’ Those types of things for a young player, that’s helpful,” Kearse said. “I said, this is what I need to start doing, this is how I need to approach things. Having Harrison around has been big for me.”
Kearse also cited a jump in his confidence that came along with better understanding X’s and O’s and laughed about God blessing him with a unique body, but there’s another element that has played into Zimmer giving him a chance: Buy-in.
He understood that starting at safety might not be in the cards and embraced playing in the box as a hybrid linebacker.
“I’m sure every guy has the same vision when they are stepping into the league, ‘I’m going to be a safety, I’m going to be the best in the league,'” Kearse said. “My journey right now is different because I’m not playing deep, I’m helping up front, playing down low in the box. I’m just taking it on. My ultimate goal is to be on the football field and where I’m at right now I can achieve that.”
Kearse said biggest challenge to switching roles from a deep safety to playing in the box in a “big nickel” package is taking on bigger blockers.
“When I’m up in the box, I’m a linebacker and the quarterback IDs you and you have to take on a lineman,” he said. “When you are deep and you are [coming up] into the box they may not see you and you’re free but when I’m down in the box and they are ID’ing me as a linebacker, that’s the biggest adjustment, having to take on those big guys.”
The Vikings’ one-size-fits-many defender now appears in line to be on the field fairly often this season as his club plays several teams who will use multiple tight ends on a regular basis. Kearse said he’s ready for the task and keeping in mind the lessons he took away from Smith.
“If he sees something he shoots it right there,” Kearse said. “I’m trying to add that to my game. When you see something, don’t second guess it, just shoot it and whatever happens, happens.”