Edit: This post has been updated to reflect the Vikings using the franchise tag on Harris on Monday morning. The move prevents Harris from reaching unrestricted free agency by Wednesday and gives the Vikings time to explore options, including a trade or long-term deal. 

Whenever safety Anthony Harris Harris agrees to his first big-time contract, which could come from the Vikings after he was surprisingly given the franchise tag Monday morning, his teammates will appreciate what the money represents: the muddiest ascent up the NFL ladder in going undrafted, signing for a $10,000 bonus, making the practice squad and playing special teams before starting.

“That gets me emotional, honestly,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said in September. “I’ve seen him go through a lot. I’ve seen him start from the bottom, legitimately. All he did was work. All he did was battle. He’s a humble guy and he knows his role on the team. There’s no question why we see him have success.”

Before Harris was the only NFL safety in 2019 with seven interceptions and no touchdowns allowed, he was the whiz-kid newcomer at Winter Park acing pop quizzes in meetings and projecting the success to come. Should head coach Mike Zimmer need to replace Harris, intelligence would top the list of desirable traits after he made his mark with disciplined coverage and impeccable timing.

“Whoever that is has to have some smarts, because those guys do a lot on the back end,” Zimmer said Feb. 26. “I love Anthony. If he doesn’t come back, I think he’s earned whatever he’s gotten, but if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety. We’ll figure out a way if he’s not back.”

Free safety

Harris shut down passing lanes from varied assignments, but he was the Vikings’ main free safety in single-high coverages like this during the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans. This is where Harris should find a home with another NFL team.

On a third-and-6 play against the Saints, Harris (#41) edged toward the side of receiver Michael Thomas (#13) while manning the middle alone. Thomas is about to run a dig route underneath Harris, which sets up Drew Brees’ deep ball to Ted Ginn Jr. (#19). Cornerback Trae Waynes motions to Harris before the snap, inferring they’ve got a clue what’s coming.

Harris backpedals immediately. Brees, perhaps seeing Harris lurking toward Thomas’ side, is locked into the deep throw. He winds up to Ginn before Thomas really clears the middle of the field. Harris reads the quarterback and breaks on the go route before the ball leaves Brees’ hand.

Man-to-man

Harris has some limitations as a man coverage defender because he doesn’t boast top-tier athleticism in NFL standards. But instincts often put Harris in the right place in the right time last season, including the first of his two interceptions against the Falcons during the Week 1 win.

Set to cover Falcons tight end Austin Hooper (#81), Harris said he “fell into” this pick. Facing intense pressure, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan forced this pass to receiver Julio Jones (#11) where Harris was simply transitioning out of his original assignment. Hooper crossed the formation to block, leading to Harris’ smooth transition to shift his eyes to the quarterback and follow the ball.

“I was trying to cover my guy, keep my eyes on the tight end,” Harris said at the time. “Saw him slash across the formation and he was blocking, so I tried to free up and help where I could and fell into an interception.”

Red zone

But Harris said “having good eyes” actually factored most into reading this play before a red-zone interception against the Falcons. Vikings coaches lauded Harris’ ability to use the circumstances of a given situation to his advantage, like posting up Falcons tight end Luke Stocker in the end zone knowing he had one way to go. Only one NFL defense – the Broncos – allowed fewer points per red-zone trip than the Vikings (4.23) last season, per Football Outsiders.

Seeing Matt Ryan’s play-action bootleg, Harris maintains his leverage to the outside of Stocker (#80), understanding routes will flow that way. Once again, pressure leads to a desperation throw and Harris is there for the pick.

Against the run

The Vikings run defense actually didn’t get as much help from safeties in 2019 as its accustomed. Poor outside coverage seemingly trickled to the back end, where Harrison Smith was required to help and therefore kept away from the line of scrimmage more often than any season since 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. And attacking downhill isn’t Harris’ natural strength, so they combined for the fewest run stops in a regular season among Vikings starting safeties under Zimmer.

The limitations that nudged Harris out of the 2015 NFL Draft, outside of shoulder surgery at the time, remain to some degree. He won’t get a huge contract this month to be an in-the-box wrecking ball or guard shifty slot receivers.

But Harris is rarely out of place. Proper angles and anticipation helped him consistently save big plays. Only the No. 1-ranked rushing defense in Tampa Bay allowed fewer 20-yard runs than the Vikings last season.

This doesn’t count as a “stop” for Harris, but Kerryon Johnson’s six-yard run in the first quarter of the Week 7 win in Detroit could’ve been much worse had he not recognized the counter run. Harris was nearly alone on his side of the field while linebackers flowed with the counter fake.

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