In today’s NFL, there is a premium on playmaking defensive backs who can steal the ball and limit offensive touchdowns. Over the last two seasons, Minnesota Vikings free safety Anthony Harris has been that and more. So it came as no surprise when the Vikings tagged Harris with their franchise designation that carries a guaranteed $11,441,000 for the 2020 season.
Here, we explain why Harris is a critical piece of the puzzle as the Vikings look to retool their declining defense.
As the eighth-ranked player on PFF’s 2020 Free Agent Rankings, Harris is finally being recognized as one of the top safeties in the game. Not only did he finish the 2019 season as PFF’s highest-graded safety (91.1) with a WAR of 0.65, Harris has also led all NFL safeties with a coverage grade of 94.3 (including the playoffs) over the last two seasons. Of PFF’s 10 highest-graded safeties between 2018 and 2019, Harris’ 872 coverage snaps ranked eighth, just ahead of Derwin James (698) and Earl Thomas III (636). But both of those players fall behind Harris’ 10 interceptions, with five and three, respectively.
Harris is a proven playmaker in coverage and a sure tackler in run defense. Over the last two seasons, he has missed only four tackles in 100 tackle attempts. His 5% missed tackle rate represents only nine missed tackles in 182 regular season attempts since 2015. His knack for stealing the ball in pass coverage is no fluke, and his versatility makes him a perfect fit for a multiple zone scheme defense. In 2019, the Vikings played cover-2 zone on 21.3% of their 663 total coverage snaps. Harris aligned in deep centerfield on roughly 112 plays of the Vikings' single-high cover-1 man snaps. Over the last two years, he’s allowed the lowest quarterback passer rating (41.4) among all players at his position.
By retaining Harris, the Vikings have ensured themselves of having arguably the best safety tandem in the league. Along with Harris’ first-ranked coverage grade of 91.6 last season, fellow safety Harrison Smith made PFF’s top 10 list with the second-best grade of 91.4, just behind Harris. In 2019, both safeties earned a combined coverage grade of 96.2, best in the NFL.
As Mike Zimmer moves to retool his defense, his very first step was to keep the most productive safety pairing as the key building block. Harris and Smith combined to lead all safeties last season with 12 interceptions while allowing zero touchdown passes and the lowest quarterback passing rating of 34.9. The Vikings safeties also combined to force an incompletion on 25.7% of their targets in primary coverage last season, a figure that was almost three percentage points higher than the next closest safety tandem.
Zimmer will now turn his attention to revamping the cornerback positions around his superb safeties. In 2019, Vikings cornerbacks underperformed and underdelivered with a 28th-ranked PFF coverage grade of 53.4 while allowing the highest completion percentage (72.7%) and the most pass receptions for first downs/touchdowns (141) among all cornerback groups league-wide. Vikings cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes combined for a minuscule three interceptions during the regular season.
Critical moves made by the Vikings this offseason include the two-year $66 million extension to keep Kirk Cousins as their quarterback through the 2022 season. To create salary cap space, the team declined the option on Everson Griffen’s contract and waived Xavier Rhodes. According to overthecap.com, the Vikings now have $11,504,429 of cap space after trading wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in return for first, fifth and sixth-round picks in the 2020 draft, plus a fourth in 2021. The Vikings are now armed with 12 draft picks in the upcoming draft, including two first-round picks, one second-round pick and two selections in the third round. With five of the first 105 picks, Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman will most likely use a high pick to select a wide receiver and cornerback to replace the departed Diggs and Rhodes.
Sometimes the best offseason moves are simply keeping your most productive players while rebuilding your roster. At 28 years old, Anthony Harris has cemented himself as a foundational player while the Vikings remain under construction. After checking in as PFF's third-highest-rated secondary in 2019, keeping Harris in the fold all but ensures the Vikings the opportunity to be even better.