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Vikings must choose safety

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The preseason has ended for the Minnesota Vikings with one starting position still unsettled.

Coach Leslie Frazier will need to decide between Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford at strong safety. He said he planned to speak "at length" with his coaching staff on Friday about it to determine who the starter should be for the season opener Sept. 11.

"One of those guys is going to line up against San Diego, I guarantee," Frazier said.

Based on experience level, past performance and potential upon entry in the NFL, this is the least-decorated position on this team.

Husain Abdullah, a fourth-year player who went undrafted and became a surprise starter last season, will be the free safety. Johnson, a second-round draft pick in 2008, had a starting job two years ago but was beaten out by Abdullah last fall and has had his struggles.

Sanford, a seventh-round selection in 2009, was an eye-catching special teams player as a rookie but made less of an impact last season. Rookie Mistral Raymond is on track to make the team, but he's a project as a sixth-round draft pick who walked on at South Florida three years ago. Eric Frampton has been a steady special teams player the last four seasons, but he has played only sparingly on defense -- and never started a game.

The coverage and tackling in the secondary will have to be better for the Vikings this year if they're going to improve on that 6-10 finish in 2010, and these young, largely unknown safeties will have a lot to do with that. After Thursday's final preseason game against Houston, neither Johnson nor Sanford said they were anxious about their status.

"I did what I could. Whatever they do is their decision. I don't have any control over that," Johnson said. "I went out there and did my best and got better each game, and that's all I can do as a player."

As for the question about who will be the starter?

"It's not for me to answer," Sanford said. "All I can do is just go out and continue to make plays. I can't control what decision they make."

Johnson dropped a sure interception in the first quarter against the Texans when Matt Leinart's pass was too high for Bryant Johnson. The ball floated straight to Johnson, hit him in the chest and fell to the turf. He stood frozen, looking briefly at his hands in disbelief. Afterward, Johnson said he wasn't fretting the missed play.

"In my first year or my second year I would've been beating myself up, but you've got to understand that's football," Johnson said. "You're going to make mistakes. You're going to miss opportunities sometimes. You've just got to come back and keep fighting."

Though this is his first chance at a starting spot, Sanford said he's been more relaxed, too, than he was as a rookie out of Mississippi, since he's confident this year there's a place for him on the roster.

"It's a big difference. You've got too much weight on your shoulders your first year because you don't know what the coaches are going to decide or what they're going to come up with," Sanford said. "A late-rounder like I was, you've got to come out and just leave it all on the field."

Johnson came with higher expectations out of Arkansas State, as the team's top draft pick in 2008 after the first-rounder was dealt to Kansas City in the trade for Jared Allen. When Madieu Williams hurt his neck in training camp, Johnson appeared to hold his own as the starter for the first seven games until Williams came back. When Darren Sharper left as a free agent for New Orleans in 2009, Johnson took over his spot and started 15 games, sitting one out because of a concussion. But he didn't make much obvious progress, and last season Abdullah beat him out.

His opportunity came back when Williams was let go before this season, but Johnson didn't catch at least three possible interceptions he got his hands on during this preseason. That has been a problem, as has positioning on coverages. Sanford clearly has more big-hit ability and natural aggressiveness than Johnson from that spot, a skill that could distinguish him from his competitor.

"Be where they are supposed to be and when they have an opportunity to make a play, make that play," Frazier said earlier, when asked what the team wants from that position. "Whether it be a tackle, an interception, a big hit or whatever it is, when they are in position to make a play can they make that play?"

Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams and three others have been suspended for the first two games of the regular season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, ending a three-year court fight.

Also suspended Friday were New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and two players currently without teams: DT Pat Williams and DE Charles Grant.

The league announced the suspensions six days before the Saints open the season at Green Bay and nine days before the Vikings open at San Diego on Sept. 11. The players initially were suspended for four games before the court struggle ensued, but the league reduced that suspension and fined all of them an additional two game checks.

Williams and former teammate Pat Williams had been embroiled in a long court fight over their positive tests for the banned diuretic bumetanide in 2008. They argued that the supplement StarCaps did not include the ingredient on its label.

In April, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Pat Williams, who is a free agent.

The Vikings were off Friday and unavailable for comment.

The suspension could help Kevin Williams, who is dealing with a painful case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Taking the first two weeks of the season off could give it more time to heal, even though Williams said this week he expected to play through pain all season.

There is no question that his absence is a big blow to the Vikings' defense. The former All-Pro is the anchor of the line and one of the most versatile players at his position in the game, excelling both at stopping the run and rushing the passer.

The Vikings likely will rely on LeTroy Guion and rookie fourth-rounder Christian Ballard to pick up the slack. Both performed well in the preseason.