Anthony Harris had just finished his first season with the Vikings, having turned in a couple of solid appearances as a spot starter for a division championship team, when coach Mike Zimmer stepped to a podium at the 2016 NFL combine and offered a glimpse of his vision for the Vikings’ safety position next to Harrison Smith.

“I think that if Harrison Smith was paired with a guy that had some other qualities, we could allow Harrison to be more of an impactful player,” Zimmer said at the time. “I think Harrison can be more impactful if he had the right kind of guy next to him.”

When he was then asked if he had the player he needed on the roster, Zimmer replied, “I don’t know.”

It took Harris another two years before he’d get a chance to prove whether he could be the answer to the Vikings’ question. He toiled in some of the most unglamorous jobs on the Vikings’ special teams units, serving as a gunner or punt protector and dutifully returning to those roles even when a play such as the goal-line fumble he forced in a key 2017 victory against the Rams suggested he might deserve more than the occasional start.

The way he handled himself while he waited might have told the team all it needed to know.

“You’d never hear him complain about not playing,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “I think that’s probably the hardest thing in the world to do, when you’re a football player, because you’ve got guys who you know [have] contracts [that are] going to be up. You want to make money, you want to play, so all these things are going in you. But for a guy to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to do my job, do it to the best of my ability, and whatever happens, happens,’ if you can get more of those guys on your team, you’ll probably win a lot of Super Bowls.

“Because that means, ‘All I’m going to do is work; I’m not worried about what happens after that.’ And we know that’s unrealistic. That’s the most unrealistic thing in the world in professional football, because everybody wants to play. Everybody wants the big contract. But his mind-set is totally different than that.”

Making most of his chance

After playing four games as a rookie and starting three in both 2016 and 2017, Harris got his first chance for substantive work last season as a safety, starting nine games with Andrew Sendejo missing most of the season because of injury.

Now 28, Harris simultaneously has a fixed role in the Vikings defense and a pivotal opportunity to grab lasting security. He’s in line to more than double his career earnings in 2019 after the Vikings placed a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent this spring, giving him a $3.095 million salary this season. But as he enters a season as the Vikings’ starting safety for the first time, Harris is set to be an unrestricted free agent next spring, when a long-term deal could be waiting for him at the end of a strong year.

That he professes little outward concern with his financial future doesn’t surprise the Vikings at this point.

“I let people handle the off-field stuff,” Harris said. “For me, it’s about being prepared, focusing on, when I get back on the field, the things that I can do, what I can bring to the table. It feels good to get another year back in the purple, get that confidence from them. But I’m still looking to improve, still looking to grow.”

Tom Baker for Star Tribune
Video (02:57) Vikings assistant head coach Gary Kubiak says the plan for running back Dalvin Cook in the preseason has yet to be decided and believes Irv Smith Jr. has come a long way in training camp.

The Vikings were turned on to Harris before the draft by Evan Marcus, their strength and conditioning coach at the time, who had been with Harris at Virginia. They gave him a $10,000 signing bonus after the draft, betting they might have something once he recovered from the shoulder injury that limited his predraft workouts.

“You look at him, and you say, ‘Well, he’s not the most athletic, but he gets his job done’ — that means he works hard,” Gray said. “So he’s tough, he’s smart and he works hard. And now, is he a guy that talks a lot? No, he’s not — that’s another one of Zim’s things. So now, he has all the four characteristics that you want. So now, can you go in there and go play?”

Proven effectiveness

According to Pro Football Focus, Harris was among the league’s most effective safeties in 2018, allowing only seven catches for 52 yards when targeted in coverage while picking off three passes. Having forged a bond with Smith through their frequent banter about defensive tactics, Harris proved a worthy counterpart for the four-time Pro Bowler during their first season of full-time work together.

“For me, it’s not about who can be over there to let me do whatever I want. Communication is where it all starts,” Smith said. “A lot of times, getting the play call in to the corners, those things you don’t think about — the pre-snap things — are realities that safeties need to be on top of. Having a guy who understands the defense inside and out, like Anthony does, just makes it easier. We know he’s going to handle his side, I’m going to handle my side, in pre-snap communication. And then once the ball’s snapped, it’s expected the safeties in this system are able to be versatile: run, cover, blitz, tackle. He’s a guy that clearly can do all those things.”

Will Harris be Smith’s on-field other half for the rest of their careers? Life in the NFL is rarely that simple, and Harris’ pending free agency comes at a time where a cap-strapped team faces a number of tricky decisions in its secondary, with Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander also in the final years of their contracts.

The way he’s carried himself to this point, though, gives Harris a shot to retain the position in the middle of the Vikings’ defensive picture for which he’s long labored.

“That’s a professional guy, to me. That’s a guy you want on your team consistently,” Gray said. “Hopefully, we can keep this combination together for a long time.”