As Tuesday afternoon turned into Tuesday evening, a reunion with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota still wasn’t on George Iloka’s mind.
The former Bengals safety, who was released Sunday for salary cap reasons, said he had talked to other teams who had similar defenses to the one he’d played in for six years in Cincinnati; the Raiders, who now employ former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, were reported to have interest in the 28-year-old. But there’d been no indication of interest from the Vikings — until Iloka got a late-night call from Zimmer on Tuesday.
“The Vikings came out of nowhere pretty much — late last evening,” Iloka said Wednesday afternoon. “Talked to Zim and then the ball just got rolling real fast, so I wouldn’t even say they were an option two days ago because there was no communication with them. Obviously my priority was to go into a good situation, go to a winning team, and a place that had a plan for me, or just a place that I felt that I could help the team out in any kind of way. That’s what made this decision pretty easy.”
Less than six hours after the phone call with Zimmer, Iloka was on his way to the airport for a flight to the Twin Cities. He signed a one-year deal with the Vikings on Wednesday morning for the veteran minimum base salary of $790,000 and a $90,000 signing bonus, according to a source. By Wednesday afternoon, he was on the Vikings’ practice field, back with Zimmer more than four years after they’d last worked together.
It remains to be seen what kind of role Iloka will play in Minnesota, or how he’ll fare after reconnecting with Zimmer, the first defensive coordinator of Iloka’s career. But two years after the Vikings’ free agency pursuit of Iloka ended with him returning to the Bengals — on the five-year, $30 million deal that had become too pricey for Cincinnati by this week — he’ll get his shot to make an impression in Minnesota.
“He’s very smart, a good tackler,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to be where he’s supposed to be all the time. He pretty much knows a lot of things that we’re doing. We went over most of the calls with him [Wednesday] and he knew probably 85 percent of them.”
Aside from Iloka taking a few first-team snaps during the middle of practice, Andrew Sendejo remained with the Vikings’ starting defense, and when Zimmer was asked about backup safeties such as Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse, he said adding Iloka “wasn’t a move to replace anyone. This was a move to get as many good players as we can.”
Iloka’s addition could initially help the Vikings in some of their sub packages, particularly around the goal line, where the 6-4 safety’s size could be an advantage. He’ll also play at least initially on special teams — though Zimmer said he still uses the safety as a cautionary tale there.
“He broke his hand on special teams once, punching a guy,” Zimmer said. “I still use that story. The guy’s got a helmet on and he punched him. I told him that last night when I talked to him on the phone. I said, ‘I still use you as a not-example.’ ”
Said Iloka: “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny then. But hey, I’m just glad I could be that example.”
Iloka said he expects to play in the Vikings’ third preseason game Friday night against Seattle, adding the team wouldn’t have rushed him to Minnesota if it didn’t want to use him in some capacity. Whenever he takes the field, he’ll be the first Vikings player to wear No. 28 since the team parted ways with Adrian Peterson after the 2016 season — though Iloka said that likely would only be temporary.
“Honestly the roster is full right now, and they just rushed me from the plane to practice,” he said. “I just think that was the only number available, so they just threw me in it. Obviously, what Adrian did for the Minnesota Vikings, no one can match, he’s a future Hall of Famer. He’s an elite running back, and I don’t think it’s any bigger than what they try to make it. They just had to throw me a number to get out there. After everything is said and done [at the end of the preseason], most likely I’ll switch to a different number.”
In whatever role he plays, he figures to be with the Vikings once the regular season starts. Even if his arrival in Minnesota wasn’t under the circumstances the Vikings or he might have envisioned, Iloka sounded grateful to be back with Zimmer.
“We have a good relationship,” he said. “I just told him to be the same Zim you were when I was a rookie. That’s kind of why I always liked him — hard coach, exact, real good with his defense. The only thing he pitched to me was, ‘You know the system and I want you here.’ And that was enough for me.”