Vikings offseason preview: How can the Vikings keep Anthony Harris?

The Vikings safety should be a top priority this offseason.
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Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings

While there is plenty of drama among the Vikings' cornerbacks this offseason, the safeties may be a little more fortunate. With Harrison Smith locked in long-term, there doesn't seem to be a lot of contract drama, but that doesn't reveal what could be the Vikings' top priority this offseason.

With Anthony Harris due for free agency and the Vikings not having a lot of money to lock him up, they could go a number of ways on the back end of their defense. With a loaded draft class and other options on the free-agent market, there are plenty of ways the Vikings can move forward without holding themselves back.

2019 in review

The safety discussion has started with Smith for a majority of the past decade, but Harris made his true breakout in his first full season as a starter. The Virginia product has been magnificent for the Vikings since taking over for Andrew Sendejo midway through the 2018 season and in 2019, he took things a step further tying for the NFL lead with six interceptions.

Harris also proved he isn't just a one-trick safety in Zimmer's defense. His tackling skills have also risen to the elite among safeties, averaging 29 tackle attempts per missed tackle, second behind Dallas' Jeff Heath. Put it all together and Pro Football Focus has him graded as the second-best safety in the league and the 12th-best player in the entire NFL last season. 

That's provided a healthy partnership with Smith, who ranks third on PFF's overall grades among safeties. Long known as a physical force in the box, Smith took his coverage skills to another level, picking up three interceptions and allowing a 35.7 passer rating when targeted, the fifth-lowest rating in the NFL.

With Smith and Harris being so dominant, it didn't leave room for anyone else to make an impact as Jayron Kearse was used sparingly and the Vikings brought back Sendejo as a depth piece and emergency slot cornerback.

The cap situation

All eyes will be pointed toward the handling of Harris as he enters free agency coming off back-to-back elite seasons. As the top-rated safety in this year's free-agent class, he'll have some competition with New England's Devin McCourty and Denver's Justin Simmons also hitting the market.

However, it will be Harris who will be worthy of a top-dollar salary, which presents an issue for a team that is $12 million over the salary cap and also has several players hitting free agency at the cornerback position. Last season's top free-agent safeties also pose an issue as Landon Collins netted a six-year, $84 million contract with Washington and Earl Thomas got four years and $55 million from Baltimore.

Harris' potential contract could come somewhere in the middle as he's a year younger than Thomas, but also more productive. It's also possible that his deal lands somewhere near the value of Tyrann Mathieu's three-year, $42 million contract with Kansas City. 

Either way, the Vikings have to find money to keep him and it wouldn't be a shock if they resorted to the franchise tag for the first time since using a non-exclusive tag on Chad Greenway in 2011. According to Over The Cap, that would cost the Vikings roughly $12.7 million.

With Smith having two years remaining on his deal and a worthy contract number of $10.7 million, the Vikings will likely have to find replacements for Kearse and Sendejo, who are both expected to be free agents.

Potential free-agent targets

If the Vikings were to lose Harris, they could make a lateral move to sign one of the other top safeties on the market. McCourty would be an interesting add as his coverage numbers (39.2 passer rating allowed) are on par with Harris and his tackling ability is better than the 8.9 attempts per missed tackle he posted in 2019.

However, McCourty's age (33) and the history of free agents to leave New England suggest that the money would be better spent keeping Harris around.

Another lateral move would be to bring in Simmons. Like Harris, Simmons has resided in obscurity while becoming a key part of the Denver Broncos' defense. Simmons graded out as the top safety per PFF, but again, it might be easier just to work something out with Harris rather than have someone learn a completely new system. 

Plus, Simmons will also command a contract in the same neighborhood and might even set the market for what Harris can make in free agency.

Other potential free agent targets include Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, who spent last year on a "prove it" deal with the Chicago Bears and Jimmie Ward, who flew around the field as a key part of the San Francisco 49ers defense.

Potential draft targets

While there is plenty of depth at the cornerback position, the safety crop in this year's draft seems to be a little top-heavy. If you include Clemson's Isaiah Simmons, who we highlighted in our linebacker preview, there are three elite safeties available to draft, which again might make sense to just re-sign Anthony Harris.

If the Vikings do not sign Harris, maybe they get aggressive and trade up to get LSU's Grant Delpit. One of the top prospects in this year's class, Delpit has fallen recently thanks to some tape showing some missed tackles. He was a key component of the Tigers' national championship team however and if the over-analyzing continues, the Vikings would throw a party if he fell all the way to 25.

The other top safety option could be available for the Vikings without having to make a move as Alabama's Xavier McKinney, who can do it all as a replacement for Harris. With the ability to cover, tackle and provide whatever the Vikings need on the back end, he could be an elite safety not soon after being thrown into an NFL defense.

Then there's the sentimental pick a little later in the draft with Antoine Winfield Jr. Of course, Winfield's father had a lengthy career with the Vikings, but also showed elite playmaking ability leading the nation in interceptions last year with the Gophers.

Outlook

Although there are some intriguing possibilities in the draft, the smartest move for the Vikings to make is to re-sign Harris. Minnesota will have to find a way to clear the money to get that done but with several members of the defense leaving, having one of their top options get away isn't the smartest thing to do.

The question also remains of what the Vikings will do behind them as Kearse believes his time in Minnesota is over and Sendejo may have just been a quick reunion tour. 2019 sixth-round pick Marcus Epps could be waiting to take that spot, but the Vikings could also bring back Sendejo and make another selection at safety in this year's draft.

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