Following an offseason of uncertainty for safety Anthony Harris, it looks like the NFL’s interceptions leader will return to the Minnesota Vikings after all.
Harris, who led all players with seven interceptions between the regular season and postseason in 2019, announced Sunday on social media that he would be back with the Vikings in 2020. The team confirmed Monday morning that Harris had signed his one-year tender under the franchise tag.
There was initially pessimism that Harris, an unrestricted free agent, would return to Minnesota after his breakout campaign seemingly set his price tag beyond the Vikings’ reach. Head coach Mike Zimmer spoke candidly at the NFL Combine about Harris’s situation.
“I think he’s earned whatever he’s gotten,” Zimmer said, “but if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety.”
Instead of a long-term extension, Harris was given the non-exclusive franchise tag by the Vikings, which signified a one-year, $11.4 million tender if signed, as well as an extended negotiating period during which the two sides could discuss an extension. But when those talks reportedly fell through, trade rumors swirled around the 28-year-old safety leading up to the NFL Draft.
Locked in a tight salary cap situation, the Vikings were reportedly willing to deal Harris for an early-to-mid-round pick and recoup some value for the talented safety who began his career as an undrafted free agent in 2015. If dealt, Harris — Pro Football Focus’s No. 2-ranked safety in 2019 — might have had the opportunity to sign a long-term deal elsewhere. Harris could’ve sought around $14 million per year, which would’ve put him in line with recent contracts signed by safeties Landon Collins, Kevin Byard, Eddie Jackson and Earl Thomas.
But a trade partner never arose, at least at the Vikings’ desired price. Minnesota, however, ended up with enough cap space to justify retaining Harris after releasing Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph, while Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Stephen Weatherly and Everson Griffen left in free agency. The Vikings also negotiated for expensive Washington tackle Trent Williams, which could have further tightened Minnesota’s financial situation and created more urgency to deal Harris, but trade talks fell through during the draft.
Harris wrote in his statement that he will “let my agents and the Minnesota Vikings work towards long-term certainty in Minnesota.” With Harris’s fellow safety Harrison Smith is also signed through 2021 at over $10 million per season, the Vikings could be reluctant to dole out another long-term contract at safety, not only because of its lower positional value, but because of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 salary cap. If the NFL season is shortened or played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following year’s salary cap could plummet.
In the short-term, however, Harris will rekindle his partnership with Smith for at least another season. The two safeties ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in coverage grade last season, per Pro Football Focus. Smith posted a passer rating against of 35.7, while Harris finished at 54.7 — both finishing in the top 15. With a youth movement coming at corner in the former of first-round pick Jeff Gladney and third-round pick Cameron Dantzler, the Vikings will appreciate having the seasoned tandem together to steady the back end.
“By us being able to franchise Anthony,” general manager Rick Spielman said before the draft, “we do have the safeties pretty well set, knowing that we’re going to have a lot of young corners we’re going to have to line up and play with.”
The Vikings had no clear replacement for Harris if he was traded. Josh Metellus (sixth round) and Brian Cole II (seventh round) were selected late in the draft, while Myles Dorn was signed in undrafted free agency.