As the Vikings placed Andrew Sendejo on injured reserve this week, they officially put Anthony Harris in the starting safety role he’d been playing next to Harrison Smith for the better part of the season.
Harris, like Sendejo, has been a longtime contributor on special teams for the Vikings, earning his first playing time there after the team signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2015.
He’s the fourth player on the Vikings current roster — counting punt returner Marcus Sherels — the team has turned into a starter after signing him as an undrafted free agent. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, fullback C.J. Ham and Harris all worked their way up the team’s ranks playing special teams, where many draft picks also got their start in an organization that prides itself on building through homegrown talent.
That means special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s groups are something of a feeder system for the Vikings’ offense and defense, and on Thursday, as he talked about Harris’ growth, Priefer sounded almost like a college coach reflecting with pride on how far his players had come.
“Probably about three or four weeks ago in a special teams meeting. I said, ‘The fun thing for me as a coach is to see these young men develop as special teams players and they last in the league and they’re contributing on special teams and they play at a high level and then they contribute on offense and defense,'” Priefer said. “When C.J. Ham catches that ball on the flat the other day against Green Bay, I’m like, ‘That’s a [special] teamer.’ Anthony Harris has two picks against Chicago — that’s a teamer. Adam Thielen had been a teamer for a long time.”
Ten of the Vikings’ top 11 contributors on special teams this season (in terms of snap counts) were acquired either through undrafted free agency (wide receiver Brandon Zylstra went through the CFL first) or a pick on the third day of the draft. Safety George Iloka is the lone exception, and he was selected with a fifth-round pick when coach Mike Zimmer was with the Bengals. Even defensive end Danielle Hunter — a third-round pick who was awarded a five-year, $72 million deal in the offseason — has still logged 102 special teams snaps this season.
“Harrison Smith played special teams back in the day. Trae Waynes, like I’ve mentioned before, was our leading tackler about three years ago in his rookie year,” Priefer said. “I think he had 15, 16 special teams tackles that year. For me, it’s very rewarding to see those guys that last in the league five, six, seven, eight, nine years and contribute on special teams when they are called upon in certain phases, but still do a great job for us on offense and defense. That’s fun. That’s a great question. I like answering that question because I’m real proud of those guys.”