EAGAN — Jerry Gray has a philosophy about how you make it in the NFL. He says there are only six or seven game-changing plays available for any given player on any given Sunday and the ones who make two or three of those plays have long careers. En route to becoming one of the league’s safeties, Anthony Harris had to prove over and over that he was capable of making those big-time plays. And he’s done it at such a high rate recently that he’s ascended to one of the league’s best ball hawks.
Last Sunday, one of those few-and-far-between chances presented itself.
New Orleans Saints legendary quarterback Drew Brees made a rare questionable decision and launched a shot down the middle of the field into double coverage. Harris jumped up and Moss’d receiver Ted Ginn Jr., and then returned the ball into Vikings territory. The ensuing touchdown changed the course of the game and propelled the Vikings to a 26-20 overtime win.
“As long as you stick with your role, you’ll get them,” says Gray, the Vikings’ long-time defensive backs coach. “Some guys see the plan and they determine on Wednesday, ‘I may not get my chance.’ But the game always evens out.”
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At this point Gray has come to expect Harris to make his plays when the six or seven chances come about.
He led the NFL in interceptions with six and finished the year second by Pro Football Focus’s grading system (with teammate Harrison Smith ranking a close third). Along the way he picked off Matt Ryan twice, Russell Wilson for a pick-six, Philip Rivers and the most impressive of the bunch: Aaron Rodgers.
“Aaron Rodgers does not get picked off a lot, you don’t get him a lot,” Gray said. “When you see him go across the field, does his job, leverage the receiver and then intercept the ball, I’m like, ‘yep that guy has some skills.'”
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In order to get an opportunity to pick off quarterbacks like Brees and Rodgers, the Vikings’ rising-star safety had to prove himself over and over before settling into his role as their most important playmaker on defense.
From the day Harris arrived in Mankato for training camp in 2015, he knew that the role he held down as a Virginia Cavalier was not going to be the spot he was given in the pros.
(You would be stunned how many players do not connect those dots.)
He made the practice squad and spent the first 12 games there before a slew of injuries hit the Vikings’ secondary. On a Thursday night in December he stepped in against a stacked Arizona Cardinals team and handled his business.
Players who were on that 2015 defense (which is basically the whole 2019 defense) remember Harris’s performance that night without having to think deeply to recall.
It was the first of a number of games in which Harris proved himself. But most of the days in between were spent on special teams.
“What I like about Anthony is that he understood what his role was and never got disappointed and then when his time came all of the sudden, this is what happens,” Gray said.
In 2016 he rarely saw the field but opportunity came again in 2017. Starter Andrew Sendejo was out against the Los Angeles Rams, who sported the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Head coach Sean McVay was the latest genius to take over football but his offense was held to just seven points at US Bank Stadium.
At 7-7 late in the second quarter, Jared Goff hit receiver Cooper Kupp over the middle for a completion that looked like it would end in a 14-7 lead for the Rams but Harris jumped in and popped the ball out for a game-changing fumble.
“Over time we knew he could be a good special teams player and he started to show that he was solid in what he was doing there and then a couple of years ago when he had to play in the Rams game, it wasn’t too big for him,” Gray said. “He had the big strip, played the whole game and did a great job. And then you say, ‘OK maybe he can do it.'”
When Sendejo returned, Harris went back to the bench but he would show up again when the situation required a hero. In the 2017 divisional round against the Saints, Harris stepped into a pile and stuffed a run up the middle that opened the door for Case Keenum’s “Minneapolis Miracle” throw to Stefon Diggs.
Still the Vikings brought back Sendejo to start 2018 but the veteran starter suffered a season-ending injury, which finally gave Harris his first full-time shot from Week 6 on.
In his first start of ’18, he picked off rookie Josh Rosen in a 27-17 win.
Finally Gray was sold.
“Last year when he got a chance to play against Arizona and he got a couple interceptions, you think, ‘Man, this guy could be a really good football player,'” Gray said. “That’s what you want to see. You want to see young guys accepting their role, doing their job, never complaining and then if I get my chance I’ll show you what I can do. And we’ve actually seen him grow over time into one of the best safeties in the league right now.”
Since then he’s racked up nine picks, 17 passes broken up and opposing QBs have a 58.3 rating when throwing into his coverage, per PFF.
“Anthony Harris, man, that gets me emotional, honestly,” All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “I’ve seen him go through a lot. I’ve seen him start at the bottom, legitimately. All he did was work. All he did was battle…there’s no question why he’s in the place he’s in, he’s in the right spot and he’s catching these balls, he works for that.”
How did everyone miss?
We love to make fun of draft experts whose criticisms end up being wrong but the draft-reporting community liked Harris.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projected him as a third-round pick. He wrote:
“Productive three-year starter with above-average instincts and football intelligence. Was an interchangeable safety, playing both deep and in run support, but lacks the bulk, physicality and sure tackling to make a living in the box in the NFL. Harris has some coverage limitations in man, but his skills will get him drafted and should also earn him a starting spot fairly quickly.”
NFL.com’s Charles Davis had him as the fourth best safety in the class. Todd McShay had Harris as the No. 1 undrafted free agent after seven rounds of players — including 15 safeties — went off the board.
There were injury concerns. He had shoulder surgery following his senior year and couldn’t participate in most NFL Combine drills. Gray said that people in the league wondered if his slight build would impact his ability to tackle.
Under the “weaknesses” column in his NFL.com draft profile, Zierlein laid out the issues with his strength and ability to play near the line of scrimmage. He wrote:
“Thinly built and lacking bulk to bang. Stiff, upright backpedal. Gives up separation and looks unsure of himself when matched against slot receivers. Can be passive as deep safety, continuing to drift despite play unfolding underneath. Lacks assertive, attacking demeanor against blocking wide receivers. Plays upright and loses leverage when tackling. Grab-and-drag tackler. Rubbery arms fail to finish when tackling at an angle (16 combined missed and broken tackles in 2014).”
Harris also doesn’t have the personality of a glass-eating safety. He’s soft-spoken and likes cats. It took him years to grow truly comfortable with the ability to communicate on defense.
But there was something the Vikings’ DB coach loved about Harris: The fact that he had come from Virginia and had impressive academics.
“You see how hard it was to stay in school, understand that we’re not going to pamper you, you’re going to do your job,” Gray said. “We knew that he had some intelligence. Can you put the mental intelligence with the football athletic ability. I know coming out he had a knee injury and stuff like that and people were looking at him like, ‘what can he be?'”
Harris’s former coach at Virginia Mike London, who is now head coach at William and Mary, remembers the wide range of criticisms for his star safety leading up to the 2015 draft.
“I heard: ‘He’s a down-in-the/box, eighth-man safety, can he play the middle half or deep third?’” London said. “I heard: ‘If you kept him in on third downs could he take the slot receiver?’ I heard all those things and it’s what he’s doing and having success now.”
What teams underestimated in their search for the next great playmaking safety, London said, was the value of Harris’s love for the details of the game.
“He’s a smart player so when it comes down to angles and pre-snap reads and quarterback tendencies, receivers, mechanics, he was always on point with those things,” London said. I could see that what scouts were looking for. ‘If it’s a one-on-one, can he take the slot receiver? I don’t know.’ But over time he’s proven he’s a reliable player and he’s going to use every asset that he has to get his job done.”
“It all comes back to how he studied the game for tendencies. The splits of the receivers, the stance of receivers – heel-toe or extended stance — or quarterback hand signals. He was always into all that stuff. Some guys just go out there and play on raw skill and ability and that’s great but if you can take what you already have and also hone it in on some things that are clues that give you a chance to be more effective.”
London did not hesitate on the phone when asked for an example of Harris’s unique gift for making an impact. He remembered well a rain-soaked game against BYU in which a Virginia linebacker picked off a pass and looked around for a teammate to lateral the ball. Of course, Harris was there. He always seems to be there.
“Johnny On The Spot Anthony, taking the pitch,” London said. “We ended up winning the game after a long [delay]. Any game where he was at the right place in the right time.”
London said that his development in the NFL reflects the same way he grew from an understated freshman to star in college. Quiet at first, then impressed with his approach and ultimately had a major impact on the players around him.
“He never brought attention to himself. His day-in-day-out work ethic, his want-to or his ability to pull a younger guy aside and say, ‘hey let’s go watch film, let’s go work out together,’ that’s the type of guy he is,” London said. “So it isn’t surprising to see that the hard work and things he’s done.”
Still Harris’s interception total dropped from eight in his junior year to just two picks during his senior season so it’s possible teams thought his playmaking wouldn’t continue.
The expectation was also that he wouldn’t be able to jump right into the mix and play. But over the years under Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, the front office and coaching staff have developed a model for finding players like Harris. They pick guys who are either freakishly athletic and didn’t produce in college or highly intelligent with strong college production but lacking in physical gifts.
“We don’t mind going and finding guys and trying to develop them,” Gray said. “When you have to find young guys who are undrafted or fifth-round, sixth-round or seventh-round and they become a good football player that means you watched enough film, your scouts have done a great job to tell you that this guy can be what you want him to be and then you coach him up.”
Will it continue?
The road to success in the NFL is paved in thousands of pages of notes. In terms of things that will regress, smarts and preparation usually don’t slump.
“He’s a smart guy,” Smith said. “I think that’s the No. 1 one thing. You see him catch interceptions and make big tackles but I think it’s his preparation. That’s where it starts. Watching extra film, putting himself in position before the game starts.”
The nature of the safety position and the randomness of interceptions, however, does vary greatly from year to year. Even Smith, who is possibly the league’s best safety, had zero interceptions in 2016 and then five picks in 2017.
But PFF’s Eric Eager thinks Harris’s streak of right-place-right-time plays will continue, in part because of Smith.
“For him it’s probably repeatable because Harrison Smith does so many things where he’s probably the key and the quarterback an the QB is keying off him and Harris can come in and make the play on the football because quarterbacks aren’t going away from him,” Eager said. “Traditionally you see a cornerback have a ton of success and then they don’t throw the ball to his side of the field for an entire year or with safeties they don’t throw the ball to the deep middle like Earl Thomas in Seattle but right now with the pair, I think it is repeatable. Harris is going to be the guy that baits the quarterback into throws that result in turnovers.”
Kendricks said the ability to make those two or three plays when the opportunity arises isn’t something that can be taught. Harris just has it.
“When a player just finds the ball, it’s the beautiful thing about football,” he said. “At the end of the day there’s all these X’s and O’s and route concepts and stuff like that but the ball’s going to be thrown or ran and you have to run to that point and if you can find it faster than anybody else, you have a job.”
The All-Pro linebacker added that the road Harris had to travel to get to this point makes his mentality different than players who were drafted higher and given more chances early on.
“You have to be some type of person to be able to do things like that especially when you start out on practice squad,” Kendricks said. “You have to have that underdog mentality. He’s always going to have a chip on his shoulder. He’s never going to forget those things and he’s going to prove itself time in and time out.”
Speaking of underdog mentality, the 49ers are seven-point favorites on Saturday. The Vikings will need another game-changing play to advance to the NFC title game. They’ll expect that when Harris gets his shot, he’ll make his play, as he always has.