There is Ambiguity at Safety For First Time in the Zimmer Era

Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

For over half a decade, the Minnesota Vikings have essentially had three starting safeties thanks to smart acquisitions, strong player development and some good fortune.

That makes their current situation all the more unfamiliar as they face an offseason where they may need to devote significant resources to finding a safety for the first time in nearly a decade. Anthony Harris is an unrestricted free agent, and Harrison Smith is entering a contract year.

“This time of year, contracts and all that stuff, you don’t know how it’s going to shake out,” Smith said after the season when asked about the potential end of his partnership with Harris. “We will stay in contact. We will talk about things that normal people talk about and then we’ll talk about that stuff, too. No matter what, you always want to play with a guy like Anthony and you always want to see him have success. We have helped each other on the field and off the field. We have had some good years together and definitely want to see success moving forward for him. You just don’t always know what it’s going to look like right now.”

Harris was franchise tagged this past year, more or less a desperation move by the team to keep a depleted secondary stable. It seems unlikely he’d return after a down year, especially with a salary cap that’s likely decreasing due to the pandemic. Smith can still play at a high level, but he’s turning 32 in less than a month, and the Vikings need to contemplate what his future looks like beyond 2021.

Is it time to usher in the next generation at safety? If there’s any team that should be confident in identifying safety talent, it’s the Vikings. Then again, they haven’t needed to do it very often.

Consider that when Mike Zimmer took the job, he inherited a blue-chip talent in Smith, a 2012 first-round pick who has anchored the secondary for nine seasons now, playing in all but six games of the Zimmer Era. After what seemed like a safety-by-committee approach to find Smith’s partner early in 2014, Minnesota settled on the undrafted veteran Andrew Sendejo, who started 48 games from the end of 2014 to the middle of 2018, when an injury ended his season prematurely and opened the door for the undrafted Harris. After years of being Smith and Sendejo’s backup, Harris took the starting role and ran with it, starting 39 games from 2018 to 2020.

Out of a possible 224 starts since 2014 (two safeties playing 16 games for seven seasons), Smith, Sendejo and Harris comprised 203 of them. Combine that high level of continuity with above-average performance and relatively low acquisition costs, and you have a situation most franchises would envy.

Continuity: The Vikings only have five players who have started five or more games at safety since 2014 — the lowest number in the NFL. Compare that to Washington, who’s trotted out 16. Only Malcolm Jenkins and Devin McCourty have started more games since 2014 than Smith, while Sendejo and Harris are two of only 13 undrafted safeties to start 45-plus games in the last seven years. It takes good health to pull that off, especially since the Vikings never rotate their safeties during games.

Performance: Smith, of course, has been continually elite during his run with the Vikings. Out of qualified starting safeties, Smith has only ranked lower than 12th once, per Pro Football Focus, over the last seven years, and he’s ranked in the top five on four occasions. Harris was a top-three safety in his first two full-time seasons before a 2020 dropoff. If there’s a weakness, it was Sendejo early in his stint, but his rankings rose from 57th to 46th to 18th in his three complete years as a starter.

Cost: The Vikings only recently reached an untenable level of spending at safety, where it’s not considered a wise place to over-invest. Their 2020 cap included a $10.75 million cap hit for Smith, the sixth-highest in the league and an $11.441 million franchise tag for Harris. That made the Vikings the second-highest safety spenders in the league, and unfortunately, they didn’t get what they paid for as Harris declined along with the defense as a whole.

From 2014 to 2020, the Vikings ranked 28th, 24th, 6th, 11th, 8th, 3rd and 2nd in safety spending, with costs escalating when Smith and Sendejo both got paid in 2016, then again when Harris required raises. The acquisition costs of Sendejo and Harris, however, made the future expenses more palatable. Because of their undrafted status, Minnesota got Sendejo for a combined $3.62 million from 2011-15 and Harris for a combined $5.385 million from 2015-19. Smith also played on his $7.13 million rookie contract from 2012-15. Things got pricey in 2020, yes, but years of bargains before that is a fair exchange in the big picture. The only albatross on the list is Harris’s 2020 franchise tag, which was spendy but also just a one-year commitment.

Minnesota’s great luck at safety has reduced its need to seriously address the position in the draft or free agency. Since selecting Smith, the highest they’ve taken a safety in the draft is Marcus Epps in the sixth round in 2019 (now with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Josh Metellus in the sixth round in 2020. Metellus was strictly a special teamer last season.

In free agency, the most the Vikings have done is sign George Iloka twice as an insurance policy in 2018 and 2020, but Iloka scarcely saw the field.

There is no clear successor to Harris, much less Smith. Metellus will certainly be a candidate for Harris’s job heading into 2021, but he got all of 16 snaps in his rookie season. Undrafted rookie Myles Dorn spent the season on injured reserve, and 24-year-old defensive back Luther Kirk was signed to a futures deal. None of the three are inspiring options for next season, but the Vikings have thrived on making the most out of uninspiring options (i.e., Sendejo and Harris). Will they take another stab in 2021?

The makeup of the defense is different now than it was in the late-2010s, though, when the group was sturdy enough at every level that the Vikings could afford to take fliers on the second safety next to Smith. In 2020, the safety position was one of the team’s few areas of certainty, and until the defensive line and cornerback group gets shored up, do they want another raw prospect on the back end?

Minnesota is in a bit of a bind. Finding a trustworthy safety for Week 1 next year would require a high draft pick, and they have many defensive priorities, or a free agent investment when they are already tight against the cap. Zimmer admitted during an interview at the 2020 NFL Combine that safety was not the most important defensive position, but that was before he saw his safeties repeatedly challenged because of the periodic ineptitude of a young cornerback group.

Discerning how the Vikings will prioritize their safety issues is an important talking point this offseason. Zimmer and Rick Spielman haven’t had to worry about the position for years, which gives us limited precedent to project what steps the Vikings will take.

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