After reading the title of this article, you may be asking yourself whether the pandemic has finally pushed Bo over the edge. How in the world could Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris be even better in 2020 than they were in 2019? Who would suggest such a thing? And for the love of Harry Peter Grant Jr., why would they need to be even better?
These are all fair questions.
It’s true, Smith and Harris were brilliant in 2019. Harris tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions – the most by a safety – yet somehow didn’t make the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, Smith made his fifth straight Pro Bowl based on another season of fixing things all over the field for the defense. Flimsy Pro Bowl honors aside, Pro Football Focus gave the Vikings the third-best overall coverage grade as a unit in 2019 primarily due to the work of their safeties and All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks.
In fact, Harris was their top overall NFC North defensive player in 2019 – one of four Vikings in their top five.
It’s well-established that head coach Mike Zimmer is not a fan of PFF, but he probably agrees with those rankings. It’s a fair assumption that Zimmer probably doesn’t play a lot of Madden either, but he won’t quibble with the guy they gave the highest safety ranking to for their 2021 game.
The bottom line is that the Vikings have the best safety duo in the NFL. We’ve said it repeatedly on this web site since the end of last season. PFF knows it. The folks at Madden NFL 21 most likely know it. Opponents know it. Most NFL observers know it.
So how and why must they improve in 2020?
For one thing, they are being paid to be the best duo in the league. Harris is playing on the franchise tag this season and will make $11.441 million, which ranks eighth among NFL safeties according to OverTheCap.com. Just a few spots lower, at 11th among safeties is Smith, who will make $10.25 million.
The Denver Broncos’ Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are the only higher-paid safety duo in the NFL with regard to average salary, earning a combined $750K more than the Vikings’ pair. The Buffalo Bills are the only other team with two safeties in the top 20 in terms of annual salary.
Safety isn’t a position at which teams usually focus their spending. If money is going to be spent in the secondary, it usually goes to a shut-down cornerback first. As Zimmer himself told Andrew Krammer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune back in February regarding the Harris contract situation, “I love Anthony. If he doesn’t come back, I think he’s earned everything he’s got, but if you put up the positions most important on defense it’s probably not going to be safety.”
Classic Zimmer. Blunt as always. Or perhaps it was a smokescreen of sorts.
Harris did, in fact, come back. The Vikings wound up tagging Harris, to make him one of the best-paid safeties in the league rather than allowing him to leave via unrestricted free agency. Furthermore, it was widely reported that the Vikes attempted to ink him to a contract extension prior to the deadline earlier this month.
They will be the fifth and sixth highest-paid Vikings in 2020. So, maybe sometimes and in certain situations, safety ranks as an important position on defense on which to spend some money.
This is one of those situations.
All you need to do is broaden things out just a tad on the Vikings secondary to realize why. More specifically, look at what the Vikings have left at cornerback.
Say what you will about the departed Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but they were veterans with a combined 16 years of experience between them. With their top three corners from 2019 playing elsewhere, the Vikings are left with a lot of inexperience and uncertainty at the position in 2020.
Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and Jeff Gladney project as the top three cornerbacks going forward, with help from Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand. Hughes and Hill are the wily veterans of the cornerback room, each heading into their third seasons. Gladney, Dantzler and Hand are rookies. That’s a wealth of inexperience, especially since injuries have limited Hughes to 20 career games and five career starts and Hill has appeared in 24 games (four starts) due to a pair of four-game suspensions in 2019.
While Smith and Harris are two of the 11 safeties that will make over $10 million in 2020, the Vikings corners are all on their rookie deals. None will even make $3 million in 2020 and none even rank in the top 60 among cornerbacks in terms of average annual salary.
The collective inexpensive salaries of the cornerbacks are why the Vikings are able to afford to pay two safeties as much as they are paying Smith and Harris. The collective inexperience of the cornerbacks is the reason why the Vikings need Smith and Harris to have career years in 2020. Not only will they have to cover for the inevitable mistakes that will be made by the young corners, but the inexperience of the corners will also serve as a handicap to Harris and Smith. They’ll both need to raise their games to a new level.
The development or lack thereof by the cornerbacks will help determine what the Vikings do going forward with Smith and more specifically Harris. Smith is signed through 2021 and feels like a career Viking. He’ll probably get one more lucrative contract from the Vikes, and it may come in the form of an extension prior to next season. Where does that leave Harris? As mentioned, they tried to get an extension done. Who knows how close the two sides were?
The 2020 season could be the Last Dance for Smith and Harris as a duo, to borrow a moniker from the Chicago Bulls. If the cornerback room shows steady progress despite its inexperience and what will be a truncated preseason and training camp, the need for keeping Harris around will diminish somewhat.
However, if the corners struggle in 2020, the Vikings will have a big decision to make. Remember, a beefy contract for Dalvin Cook will play into all of this as well. They may wish to bring Harris back but not have enough financial flexibility to do so. There’s only so much room under the NFL salary cap, which could be lower in 2021.
It’s interesting to note that, while it’s early, the 2021 NFL Draft looks like a really good one for safeties according to the draftniks. So, if Harris winds up going elsewhere, Rick Spielman will apparently have an assortment of blue-chip talent from which to choose with some of his 15-20 picks in next year’s draft.
So, enjoy the Vikings’ Safety Dance this season – to borrow yet another title, this time one that only those of a certain age will remember from Men Without Hats classic hit on MTV – because it needs to be a really good performance from Smith and Harris.
Editor’s Note: At this point, we had to cut out the rest of the “analysis” in which Bo re-did the lyrics to “Safety Dance” to fit the Vikings’ situation and shared a video of himself depicting an interpretive dance of said song. He can dance if he wants to… we just didn’t need any of our readers to see it. He promised it would be on TikTok. Perhaps the pandemic actually has been a little too much for him.