Anthony Harris could be the answer at strong safety

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

With no clear options at strong safety, could former undrafted free agent Anthony Harris step up and seize the starting job?

The safety position was a revolving door for the Vikings in 2015, with injuries and ineffectiveness frustrating fans and coaches alike as six different players rotated through the position. While superstar Harrison Smith locked down the free safety spot with outstanding play en route to his first Pro Bowl, the strong safety role remained up in the air the entire year.

After the lackluster year, even Mike Zimmer made it clear that the team was still looking for answers at the position. In a statement that was simultaneously vague and illuminating, Zimmer managed to shed some light on the safety position.

“If Harrison Smith was paired with a guy that had some other qualities we could allow Harrison to be more of an impact player,” Zimmer told reporters prior to the draft.

Though the specifics of Zimmer’s quote are hazy, the implication is clear: the Vikings are looking for a player that will allow them to capitalize on Smith’s versatile skill set by moving him around to create mismatches. By sending Smith on blitzes, playing him in the box, and using him in a variety of other complex and creative ways, the Vikings would be able to tailor the defense specifically to their star player’s strengths.

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In order to facilitate such movement, however, it is critical to have a reliable and versatile complementary player who can fill any role vacated by Smith as he shifts around the defense. When asked if that player existed on the Vikings roster, Zimmer simply answered, “I don’t know.”

While Zimmer’s statements seemed to convey a lack of trust in the returning group, the team’s offseason moves suggested the opposite.

While many fans were clamoring for the team to bring in a big-name free agent or pick a safety early in the draft, the team opted instead to sign aging veteran Michael Griffin, re-sign incumbent starter Andrew Sendejo, and spend a 7th round pick on developmental prospect Jayron Kearse.

None of the transactions provided a clear starter at the position.

Michael Griffin is 31 and noticeably declining, Andrew Sendejo greatly struggled in the starting role, and Jayron Kearse is far too raw to contribute early in his career. At best, Griffin or Sendejo could fill in for a year while other players develop, but neither is an inspiring option.

While the early indications were that the Vikings would seek to upgrade the safety spot during the offseason, the lack of a big investment at the position suggests that the team has confidence in someone already on the roster.

Anthony Harris could be that player.

In college Harris made a name for himself as a rangy, ball-hawking safety, leading the nation with eight interceptions and earning All-American honors in 2013. Unfortunately, a nagging shoulder injury hindered him throughout his entire senior season and eventually required surgery prior to the draft.

Once projected to be a third-round pick, the injury caused Harris to fall out of the draft completely and sign with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

After spending the first 13 weeks of the season on the practice squad getting healthy and learning the defense, Harris turned heads when he was finally called upon to start in the injury-decimated secondary.

At 6’1″ and 190 pounds, Harris showcased impressive instincts and fluidity in two starts, excelling at diagnosing plays and breaking on the ball to contest passes. His ability to read plays and track the ball, coupled with the athleticism to cover receivers one-on-one, made Harris an immediate asset in both man and zone coverages.

Dec 10, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris (41) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Additionally, despite his lanky frame, Harris displayed the toughness and aggressiveness to help out in run support. Even with physical limitations as a thin rookie lacking in functional strength, Harris was able to read plays and make tackles, leading the team with eight stops in his first start against the Arizona Cardinals. Though run support is by no means a strong-suit of his game, Harris’ play-diagnosing ability and willingness to step up to deliver hits highlight his potential in the area.

More so than his tight coverage and encouraging run-stopping ability, though, Harris’ biggest strength might be his coachability and football intelligence.

“The thing about Anthony, if you tell him where he’s supposed to be, he’s going to be there 99 percent of the time,” Zimmer said after Harris’ first start.

With a very solid understanding of the defense and a responsiveness to coaching, Harris is the perfect candidate for the versatile role that Zimmer is looking for. Unlike fellow safety Antone Exum, who Zimmer has repeatedly chastised for his undisciplined play, Harris can always be counted on to do what he’s told and will be able to adapt to any role the coaching staff gives him.

That discipline is crucial, as whoever starts at safety will likely be isolated in coverage more often as Harrison Smith is sent on blitzes and used in other unconventional ways, and it will be critical that Smith’s complement can be trusted to know to the scheme and do their job.

In that regard, with disciplined play, the malleability to adjust his game to coaching, and the tools to be a well-rounded player, Anthony Harris is an ideal candidate to fill the safety spot. Harris will be able to fill any role necessary and execute whatever is asked of him with discipline.

Harris has a long way to go to earn the starting job, however. Currently working exclusively with the second and third teams as Sendejo and Griffin split the starting reps, Harris will have to impress during training camp to work his way up the depth chart.

The biggest concern that Harris will have to address is his size and strength. Weighing in at only 190 pounds in his rookie year, Harris’ play strength was well below average for an NFL safety. While he largely made up for his lack of strength with his toughness and nose for the ball, he was still at times physically overpowered by opponents. With a year in an NFL strength program under his belt, it will be important for Harris to show greater bulk and strength to prove to the coaching staff he can be a physical force in the NFL.

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If he can prove that he has improved his strength and continued to progress in all facets of his game, we could see Anthony Harris shooting up the depth chart come training camp. With the best combination of youth, athleticism, intelligence, and technique on the roster, don’t be surprised to see Harris lining up opposite Harrison Smith come September.