The Minnesota Vikings have tried before to integrate one of Mike Zimmer’s former safeties from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals.
First, it was Chris Crocker in 2014, who was over the hill at age 34 and didn’t survive final roster cuts. Then it was Taylor Mays in 2015, a former high draft pick who auditioned in Vikings OTAs but never saw the field again after being released by Minnesota that June.
George Iloka, signed by the Vikings Wednesday morning after six years in Cincinnati, is the latest attempt at reviving the career of one of Zimmer’s ex-proteges.
“George is a very smart guy,” Zimmer said after Iloka’s first practice. “He helped a lot in the past. I can’t remember if it was his rookie year or second year, he ended up starting. He’s very smart. He’s a good tackler. He’s going to be where he supposed to be all the time. He pretty much knows a lot of the things that we’re doing.”
Iloka, 28, was a fifth-round draft pick in 2012 and started all 16 games his second season, helping the Bengals post the third-best passing defense in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, Iloka ranked 15th that season in coverage snaps per reception. He followed it up ranking fourth in 2014.
His play dipped a bit — at least analytically speaking — over the next three seasons as he ranked 31st, 29th and 31st from 2015-17 in snaps per reception, and he missed 11 tackles in 2017. Iloka was released Aug. 19, the morning after Cincinnati’s second preseason game, to clear over $5 million in cap space.
Iloka had three years remaining on his $30 million deal with the Bengals.
“That [release] caught a lot of people off guard, definitely,” Iloka said Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. “Just sitting down eating with my wife and got a phone call from my agent, but that’s the business. That’s what we kind of signed up for. Things happen. End of the day, you’re just a number, for the most part. And that’s that.”
Aside from their past efforts to find a former Zimmer pupil, the Vikings have had very little movement at the safety position since the coach arrived. Andrew Sendejo won the team’s starting job in 2015, signed an extension in 2016 and has yet to relinquish the spot opposite Pro Bowler Harrison Smith. Jayron Kearse, a seventh-round pick in 2016, may be in jeopardy of losing a roster spot to Iloka, but there’s no indication Sendejo’s job is in jeopardy. “This wasn’t a move to replace anyone,” said Zimmer.
The Vikings rarely rotate safeties during games, though. Last year, Harrison Smith played 100 percent of snaps in 14 games. That was true in 11 for Sendejo. Could that tendency change with Iloka, who set a career high in tackles last season and has nine career interceptions? Iloka’s 6-foot-4 stature could make him a unique tool to insert in the red zone.
“Most of these guys we can use in different ways,” said Zimmer, “even on the goal line. We can use bigger guys down there. Honestly, we’re just trying to add good football players, and it’ll all sort out at the end.”
It’s forgivable if Zimmer doesn’t have every nuance figured out at the present moment. Iloka was practicing with the team less than 12 hours after the two parties made initial contact late Tuesday night. He said he expects to play Friday night thanks to his familiarity with Zimmer’s system.
Zimmer has hinted about showing more creative looks with his defense. Among them: rotating his defensive line, using an extra cornerback or setting up Anthony Barr as an edge rusher.
Adding Iloka gives the Vikings another wild card to use situationally. It’s a fairly low-risk move for a defense hoping to dodge regression after a historically successful season.
“My expectation is to come in, just compete, help this team out any way I can,” Iloka said. “Be a veteran presence and help the young guys as soon as I pick up the playbook. Once I learn the playbook, help them out as much as I can. Add depth, accountability and be someone that players can look to and be like, ‘That’s how you want to play.'”