With the clock ticking down toward kickoff in Week 1, you can bet Rick Spielman and other Vikings executives with rich mahogany desks at TCO Performance Center in Eagan have one eye on next offseason. As has been suggested recently in this space, the 2020 season reeks of uncharted territory in which anything can, and probably will, happen. So it’s prudent for the suits to look ahead toward a time when things might be more normal. Key phrase: “might be.”
Let Mike Zimmer and his staff worry about the day-to-day weirdness this season promises.
Unless you’ve been living in quarantine and… um, scratch that. Let’s try this again. Unless you haven’t been paying close attention to Vikings’ contracts due to more important things in your life lately such as – oh, I don’t know — a global pandemic, racial injustice and unemployment, here’s a quick refresher course:
Harris is playing under the franchise tag this season and is set to make $11.441 million in 2020. He will become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Star running back Dalvin Cook is also due to be an unrestricted free agent. Both will cost the Vikings a boatload of money and/or their franchise tag if they want to retain their services. In other words, the chances of both Harris and Cook staying put in Minnesota beyond this season are remote no matter what kind of tricks Vikings salary cap magician Rob Brzezinski summons from his spreadsheets.
Smith, on the other hand, won’t become a free agent until 2022. However, not a single soul would be surprised if he and his agent came calling next offseason looking for an extension so he doesn’t enter the final contract year without security. If any current Viking has earned the right to seek an extension, it’s Smith.
Recently, there’s been some movement in the safety market that could shed some light on just how much money we’re talking about when it comes to the next contracts for both Smith and Harris.
RECENT SAFETY DEALS
The Jets traded All-Pro safety Jamal Adams to the Seahawks in July for a massive return that included their first-round draft picks in 2021 and 2022. Many considered it too much to give up for a safety no matter how good he might be. Regardless of how anyone feels about the deal, however, it signaled that there’s a hot market for top-end safety talent in a league that values passing offenses as well as defenses that can stop them.
What’s more, the trade triggered a discussion on what Adams’ next contract might look like, given that he’s only 24 years old (he turns 25 in October) and will become a free agent in 2022. The fallout led ESPN’s Bill Barnwell to project that Adams would soon become the first $15 million per year safety and sign a four-year deal for at least $64 million, if not $10 million more than that. At first blush, that feels like an awful lot of money for a safety… again, no matter what kind of resume they have.
Is it really, though?
Remember, there’s a lot of money to go around in the NFL and salaries escalate every season. Right now, the top 10 safeties in the NFL make a smidge more than $12 million per season on average. A few examples: Bears safety Eddie Jackson, 27, signed a five-year deal this past January for $58.4 million. The Titans signed Kevin Byard in July of 2019, when he was 26, to a five-year contract worth a reported $70.5 million. Check out overthecap.com for details on the biggest safety contracts. It’s not a huge jump to get to $15 million.
And then, just last week, the Cardinals signed two-time Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker to a four-year extension worth a reported $59 million. Baker was set to become a free agent in 2021 so the Cards prevented him from hitting the market next winter. Some quick, back-of-the-napkin math tells us that’s already pretty darn close to $15 million per season. Like Adams, Baker is also just 24 years old. He turns 25 in January.
It would seem then that the market for top young safeties has already been established in the $15 million-per-year range — and that’s without any bidding wars among suitors in free agency.
Both of these guys are younger than Harris, who turns 29 in October, and Smith, who turns 32 in February, and age is certainly a big factor when determining contract size. So, what might the two stars in the Vikings’ secondary be asking for in their next deals?
Let’s take a look at some more comps, shall we?
Before going any further, a disclaimer: all of the contract speculation herein is based on the assumption that the players discussed have seasons in 2020 that are in line with past performances – no massive drop-offs and no serious injuries. These things would obviously have an impact on their next deals.
Harris’ situation is almost identical to that of Broncos safety Justin Simmons, the other safety playing on a franchise tag tender this season. Both will make $11.4 million in 2020 and both are set to become UFAs after the season. Simmons turns 27 in November, so he’s a couple years younger than Harris. Simmons is probably also a bigger name than Harris, who remains a relative unknown despite being the top safety in the 2019 rankings from Pro Football Focus and tying for the NFL lead with six interceptions.
Draft pedigree will play a role in the minds of some decision-makers, who might view Simmons (a third-round pick) as a player with more sustainable and tested abilities than Harris, who was an undrafted free agent. Some might discount Harris’ achievements the past few seasons because he benefitted from playing alongside Smith, a bona fide star in the minds of everyone in NFL circles. Still, others might dismiss Harris as a perfect scheme fit in Zimmer’s system and wonder if he could adapt to something else.
Regardless, Harris is going to get paid. However, the suspicion here is that Simmons gets the slightly more lucrative deal next March regardless of where they land. It will be interesting to see which of them blinks and signs first.
How much money are we talking about? Some kind of modest discount should be baked in due to their age. However, those parameters could go out the window if and when a bidding war erupts. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million per season for four or five years is probably where things will wind up if current tea leaves are to be trusted and the NFL’s 2021 salary cap isn’t well short of the already meager expectations.
Zimmer is one of many old-school guys around the league who don’t exactly have a high view of the positional ranks put forth by the smart football minds at PFF.com, but all of these guys we’re mentioning here rank pretty high, according to PFF. They must be doing something right. And some NFL execs with access to purse strings must be paying attention to analytics.
Remember, though, Harris was the No. 1 ranked safety in 2019 per PFF. Did we already mention that? It bears repeating. Zim might even agree with that one. Smith was way down the list two spots at No. 3. The aforementioned Simmons, who compares most closely with Harris was coincidentally ranked No. 2. Byard was the No. 10 safety in 2019, per PFF. Adams was No. 5.
Another young gun at safety to keep a close eye on is Marcus Williams, who is just 24 years old and he was PFF’s No. 4 safety in 2019. And he plays for the Saints, who are in an awful salary cap predicament going forward and are already paying Malcolm Jenkins an average of $8 million per season through 2024. Williams is going to get a big bag of cash from some team next offseason because he’s a UFA in 2021.
Now get this — Eddie Jackson, who was mentioned earlier for his big deal last winter, came in at No. 43 (!) on the list. Yes, 43. Landon Collins of the Washington football team is just 26 years old and has a cap hit of $14.2 million this season. PFF had him No. 26. Budda Baker? No. 27. He’s young, but 27 isn’t the kind of ranking that one would associate with being the highest-paid safety in the NFL (for now). Thus, it must be other factors like all his interceptions.[checks notes]
Actually, Baker has no career interceptions. But hey, he’s 24 and he’s made the Pro Bowl twice, so…
In other words, if you think you can get a firm handle on where all these safety contracts are heading, you might not actually know. Yet here we are making educated guesses because it’s a significant Vikings storyline.
Now for the “old guy.”
The closest comparable safeties for Smith might be Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Kareem Jackson. Both are scheduled to become free agents in 2022, and may also be looking for contract extensions at the same time Smith is prior to training camp next year.
The Honey Badger turns 29 in May and has formidable cap hits of $16.3 million in 2020 and $19.7 million in 2021. If he gets a raise from that level on his next contract, we can throw out all the numbers above and start over. I mean, he’s the Honey Badger and everything, but c’mon. He was “only” the No. 16 safety according to PFF last season.
Meanwhile, Jackson is 32 years old already. He’ll be 33 in April. He’s actually older than Smith. PFF ranked Jackson No. 7 among safeties last season. His cap hit in 2020 will be $13.8 million – about $3 million more than Smith’s hit.
Again, we’re talking about massive salary cap hits for safeties who are, most likely, past their primes. Expecting even larger paydays going forward feels like a stretch for either Mathieu or Jackson. However, both are making a lot more than Smith, and with all due respect, Smith is the better player.
Even so, it doesn’t seem likely that Smith would get more than a four-year deal given his age, but his annual salary could very well challenge that of some of the other elite, albeit younger, safeties mentioned above. And it better be in line with the contracts of Mathieu and Jackson.
FINAL PROGNOSIS (FOR NOW)
It would seem Smith is the more affordable and the more likely of the two between him and Harris to remain in Purple beyond their current deals.
Having scouted the safety salary landscape, the prediction as of now is that Smith gets an extension done with the Vikings next July for three or four years at close to $14 million per season. Harris will be long gone by then, signed by the highest bidding team for at least $15 million on average for at least four, probably five, years.
Oh, and Dalvin Cook? Who really knows anymore? That’s a whole different article.