How Have Eric Wilson and Anthony Harris Done in Relief of Injured Starters?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

Even though the Minnesota Vikings defense allowed just one scoring drive in the second half, there wasn’t much to celebrate after their 25-20 loss to the Chicago Bears.

A porous first half defensively was enough to sour the defense on its overall performance. The Bears held a 14-0 halftime lead and controlled the ball for nearly 20 minutes in the opening two quarters. The Vikings’ defensive line was non-descript in its first game since a 10-sack bludgeoning of the Detroit Lions, and the secondary was culpable for the Bears’ 50 percent conversion rate on third downs (6 of 12).

Just going off a box score, though, the two most encouraging performances might have come from the two Vikings reserves that have been recently cast into starting roles. In his third game filling in for Anthony Barr (hamstring), linebacker Eric Wilson recorded the Vikings’ lone sack and applied the only two recorded hits on Mitchell Trubisky. And for the fifth straight game without Andrew Sendejo (groin), safety Anthony Harris recorded two interceptions to continue an impressive stretch.

A deeper look shows that while one of these reserves may soon be going back to the bench, the other could vie for a permanent starting job.

Wilson picked up one of the Vikings’ three personal fouls when he threw a towel back at Taylor Gabriel that had fallen off his beltline during a tackle. Otherwise, Wilson picked up seven tackles — third best on the team — though several of them came after substantial gains by the Bears in the run game.

Wilson took responsibility after the game for not doing more.

“Me personally, I need to be better,” he said. “Too many mistakes out there. Didn’t help us at all.”

The former undrafted free agent has played 168 snaps since Barr’s injury and has missed five tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, giving him the lowest tackling grade of linebackers with over 30 snaps. He’s also permitted 10 receptions in coverage.

His sack of Trubisky was the first of his career, however, and it came in the red zone, which led to the Bears settling for a field goal.

“For the most part he’s done well,” said Zimmer. “I don’t think last night was his best game, but the other games he’s played pretty well.”

While the dropoff from Barr to Wilson was not directly responsible for many huge plays, it may have decreased the ceiling of the defense since, according to Zimmer, teams aren’t giving as much attention to Wilson as they ordinarily would towards Barr.

Barr told reporters on Monday that he plans to play next Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, which may bring Wilson’s run to an end.

Harris’s play at safety, meanwhile, has raised the level of play at the position.

That’s not a knock on Sendejo; Harris has just been that good.

Since Week 6, when Sendejo missed his first game, Harris is the top-ranked safety in football, per PFF. To break it down by sub-category, he’s first in coverage, eighth in rush defense and third in tackling. And like Wilson, he’s a former undrafted free agent.

Getting the longest run of action in his four-year career, Harris has not only been steady, but splashy. He’s allowed just one reception in coverage while intercepting three passes, and he’s done it without drawing a penalty.

“He sees things and reacts,” said Zimmer. “He’s a good visual player. He’s very smart, so he’s good visually and kind of understands what the offense is trying to do.”

His path closely resembles that of the man he’s replacing. Sendejo did not get a start for his first three seasons before getting 10 starts in 2013 and eventually earning a full-time job opposite Harrison Smith in 2015.

Harris also seems to be blossoming in Year 4. He is signed to a one-year contract, while Sendejo is under contract for one more season but has a non-guaranteed salary worth over $5 million that could save the Vikings cap space if cut or restructured.

If the Vikings have any ideas about making Harris a fixture in their defense going forward, they’ll have to worry that his current stretch of excellence could price him out of their budget. Heading into free agency at age 27 after a good season, Harris will be looking for his first big payday. If teams value what he’s put on tape, he may be worth $4-5 million per year if offered a long-term deal.

For this season, it’s worth wondering if Harris has entrenched himself as the new starting safety.

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