Everybody is asking about Anthony Harris‘ play this year, for some reason. Mailbags on the Locked On Vikings podcast always get one or two people asking about Harris. Arif Hasan at The Athletic has had the same experience. Harris is playing on an $11.4 million franchise tag, so higher expectations make sense. After a stellar 2019 season, anything short of elite represents a change. But is this a true down year, or is it just harder to see his contributions?
The 2020 Vikings defense is a lot different from the 2019 Vikings defense. This has been covered in plenty of detail but as a refresher, the 2019 Vikings liked to use Cover 4 as a way to discourage deep passing and choke offenses out with lower potential plays. That required cornerbacks to cover their entire sideline, which the 2020 cornerbacks can’t be trusted to do. So they’ve adjusted to Cover 2, which takes the deep responsibility from the corners and places it on the shoulders of Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.
That responsibility is far less glamorous. Instead of roaming around the box, jumping routes, and reading quarterbacks, they are forced to take away deep routes and watch the play go elsewhere. For the coaches, that works out fine. Individually, it doesn’t lead to as much production. In the secondary, that’s not so bad a thing.
Harris defense ranks 10th in coverage snaps per reception allowed and in yards allowed per coverage snap, per PFF. On average, he goes 42 reps before allowing a catch. On this season’s 515 coverage snaps, he has only ceded 153 yards. That’s certainly a drop off from 2019, but that is to be expected. Coverage is a high-variance aspect of football, so most extreme performances regress to the mean. He has graded a bit lower per PFF (31st of 65 eligible safeties), which speaks to that new assignment.
PFF’s grading method comes in handy here. On a Cover 2 snap, a rep where Harris just picks up a deep route and isn’t targeted won’t often inspire a positive grade. Most un-targeted coverage snaps get graded uniformly, and Harris is one of the least-targeted players in the league — 12th-least, to be exact.
This all tracks with the nature of a Cover 2 assignment. The Vikings have been protecting their cornerbacks with their safeties. That necessitates quality safety play, even if it doesn’t generate a good PFF grade. Were it not for safeties like Harris and Smith, the Vikings defense would be worse than 12th in Passing DVOA.
But a larger question looms. Anthony Harris is slated to hit free agency at the conclusion of the season. The Vikings and Harris have expressed a desire for a long-term deal, but finding the money will be more difficult. The top safeties in the NFL make $14 million per year, and Harris will likely negotiate in that space. With the Vikings looking at a cap-strapped 2021, that will be difficult.
One possible solution exists in contract structure. Much like the Dalvin Cook contract, which doesn’t pay Cook top-10 money until 2022, the Vikings could sign a deal that defers the bulk of Harris’s money. They can have him affordably for two years, guarantee enough to reassure that he won’t be cut before the real money kicks in, and enjoy the cheap years. When the real money kicks in, the Vikings may be happy to pay it. But if not, there are still accounting tricks to deploy at that time.
The Vikings aren’t asking Anthony Harris to be the star of the defense this year, but rather the pillar upon which it rests. That doesn’t reflect on Harris so much as it reflects on the well-documented struggles of the cornerback group. There isn’t much reason to believe that Harris would be unable to fulfill whatever duty Zimmer’s staff deems to be the best use of his talents. The fact that it’s so flexible is worth paying for, especially when covering for an offense’s most explosive concepts.