Sanford's play makes a case for his return

Jamarca Sanford (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA Today)

Jamarca Sanford appeared to have his best season as a pro and it couldn't have come at a better time. Sanford is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. His defensive coordinator and general manager discussed the outlook with the emerging safety.

Jamarca Sanford let his play do the talking, and then he continued to talk. The boisterous, fun-loving Sanford had a solid season in 2012 when he needed it most – as he approached unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.

Sanford is hardly the biggest name among the Minnesota Vikings' pending free agents, but he appeared to come on strong at just the right time.

He has never fit the highly touted mold of the early-round draft picks. He was a seventh-round pick in 2009 and initially made his impression on special teams coverage before working his way into the possibilities at safety.

Over the last four years, Sanford has scrapped for playing time and fought to make himself relevant at the safety rotation. In 2012, he made his biggest statement yet. He entered training camp battling for a starting job alongside first-round pick Harrison Smith.

That job was initially given to Mistral Raymond instead, but when Raymond suffered a dislocated ankle in the third game of the season, Sanford took over the starting job and never let go. By the final month of the season, Raymond was back to full health, but Sanford had played well enough that the switch back to Raymond never happened.

Now, Sanford faces another first: unrestricted free agency.

"He played well. Guys that play well and play like that, you want them back and want them part of the team," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said last week. "He was a big reason why we were successful."

Sanford finished sixth on the team with 74 tackles, two of them for losses, had five quarterback hurries, five passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He also led the team with four forced fumbles.

It may have taken four years for the maturation of Sanford to go from roster-bubble hopeful in 2009 to a desirable free agent in 2013, but he is there now.

"Jamarca made big strides this year. You give credit to our coaching staff and all those guys – some guys when they get their opportunity it maybe clicks a year later," general manager Rick Spielman said. "I think Jamarca was an example of that."

Sanford has been a steady progressor throughout his time with the Vikings. As a rookie, he played in 14 games, starting one as the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game. In 2010, he started two games; and in 2011 he finally broke in as a full-time starter, ranking third on the team with 118 tackles and leading the team with two interceptions.

But in 2012 it took Raymond's injury to get Sanford back in the starting lineup and he showed a few areas where he had improved.

"Open-field tackling. That's a spot that there may have been some missed tackles in the past, but this year he was extremely consistent and I'm not sure people really know how many tackles he made that if he hadn't had made them would have gone for long plays. That was a big deal that people just don't realize," Williams said.

"… Maybe in the past he would have made them if he would have taken the right angle. This year, he took the right angles and played more confident and more within himself than I think in years past."

The Vikings have other unrestricted free agents that could garner higher priority – right tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton and a duo of starting linebackers in Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley – but Sanford has to be a serious consideration after his best season as a pro and one in which he began to emerge as a vocal leader on the field and in the locker room.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board. Recommended Stories