Harrison Smith’s lip quivered talking about Anthony Barr, his teammate for the last five seasons.
Both are former first-round picks and cornerstones at their respective defensive positions, part of a Minnesota Vikings defense that’s heading into 2019 with mostly the same crew it’s had for the last five years.
Anthony Barr’s near-departure almost broke up that core. He told the New York Jets he was headed their way after free-agency negotiations that would’ve paid Barr more than he could make in Minnesota. The 2014 first-round selection was on his way out, but a last-moment change of heart brought him back to the Vikings. Barr’s desire to remain part a dominant, tight-knit group overpowered his urge to chase the largest contract, a gesture that made Minnesota hard-hitting safety tear up Tuesday afternoon at TCO Performance Center.
“A guy making a choice like that, it was pretty big,” Smith said. “It doesn’t happen a lot in pro sports, even if it’s a couple million dollars, which means different things to different people. For him, it meant staying here. … He’s one of my best friends.”
Barr has many friends on that side of the ball, including his partner in the nickel defense and former college roommate, Eric Kendricks, who doubles as his weightlifting buddy. As contemplative as Smith was when describing his feelings on Barr’s return, Kendricks was equally giddy, smiling as he remembered the events.
Back in early March, Barr was communicating with his agent in between weight room sessions with Kendricks, who tried to stay at an arm’s length from Barr’s contract negotiations. Just as Kendricks was getting around to processing the news of Barr’s departure, his friend texted him about the big development.
“I sent him a text like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be weird not playing with you,'” recalled Kendricks, “and he was like, ‘Just wait a second.’
“I wanted to see him get that big payday. You know, I wanted to see him get what he’s earned. So, for him to take a step back and realize what truly makes him happy, that’s huge. That just shows you a lot about him, our team and the kind of guys we got.”
There is a rare kinship on the Vikings’ defensive side of the ball. The players compete for each other and seem to enjoy the continuity they’ve built with Zimmer’s oversight. Barr’s situation aside, nearly all of the staples on Minnesota’s defense have re-upped their contracts before embracing the lure of free agency: Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter. The team’s willingness to spend on its homegrown talent has, in turn, earned the players’ loyalty to the organization.
That loyalty was put to the test this March with Everson Griffen — another foundational piece that nearly departed. A season before tapping into a four-year extension that the Vikings rewarded him with two summers ago, Griffen’s status was in question after missing time in 2018 to deal with a mental health issue that led to erratic behavior last September.
With the deadline to restructure getting closer, Griffen accepted a reduced salary to stay with the Vikings.
Instead of a Barr-less, Griffen-less Vikings defense that could’ve lost its edge, Minnesota kept the gang together.
“Loyalty,” said Griffen, now the longest tenured Vikings player. “They took care of me and they treated me like family. I’ve been here for 10 years, I’ve played good football for them, and I felt like they handled the situation that I was in perfectly. They took me under their wing, they made sure I had everything lined up and it was a good thing. I just want to repay that. It’s always bigger than football.”
Griffen confessed he wasn’t himself last year — on or off the field. From a football perspective, it was easy to tell he wasn’t the same player that started the 2017 season with a sack in eight straight games. The defense’s vocal leader claimed he’s back to normal now after an offseason of counseling and self-reflection. Getting Old Griffen back could elevate the defensive line, which was strong overall last season but lapsed in some big moments.
Likewise, retaining Barr prevents a dropoff that might’ve occurred without his intimate knowledge of Zimmer’s defense.
Letting Barr walk or releasing Griffen could have saved the Vikings around $20 million in cap space (and as it is, they’re in a financial pickle). But they chose to invest in continuity. And they displayed their loyalty to Griffen while receiving loyalty from Barr.
“I feel like we just love playing with each other,” said Kendricks. “We know what kind of group we have. We have each other’s backs. I take a lot of trips with these guys in the offseason and we just enjoy being together, working together. We know what we’re all chasing. I feel like it says a lot about what we got.”