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The future of the Vikings, part 9: Safeties

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part , safeties

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Wide receivers 

Tight ends

Offensive line

Defensive line

Linebackers

Cornerbacks

Harrison Smith

What worked:

In 2017, Smith put together a campaign that was worthy of defensive MVP consideration. He wasn’t able to repeat his five-interception season in 2018 or rank at the top of PFF’s grades in nearly every category, but Smith was every bit as effective as he’s ever been for the Vikings’ defense.

He allowed just a 71.1 rating into his coverage, graded as the No. 1 run defender and No. 1 tackler by PFF’s standards and was effective in the pass rush, picking up nine QB pressures. He also set a career high in tackles for loss (nine).

Smith’s ability to play in any area of the field causes nightmares for opposing quarterbacks, whose first job is to find him. Per PFF, the Vikings’ star safety lined up 380 times inside the box, 417 times at free safety, 108 times on the defensive line, 91 times at slot corner and 29 times at outside corner. There are few players in the world capable of that type of versatility.

Importantly, Smith played all 16 games and more than 1,000 snaps for the second straight season. He had suffered injuries and missed five games between 2015 and 2016.

What didn’t work:

On every defender’s report card is the team’s meltdown against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. It was his lowest graded regular season game by PFF since he attempted to play through an ankle injury at the end of the 2016 season.

There aren’t many other blemishes on his record.

Best case scenario for 2019:

Smith continues to be himself. As long as he dominates against the run, continues to be the key cog in Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme and plays all-out, Smith will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

At 30 years old, there’s always concern that a player will start to show signs of aging. Barring injury, the floor for 2019 for Smith is very good play instead of great.

Andrew Sendejo 

Sendejo suffered his worst-case scenario. Coming off his best career year in 2017, he started 2018 slow (as did most of the defense) and never had a chance to recover because of a season-ending injury.

Anthony Harris

What worked:

Seemingly everything. Harris stepped in when Sendejo went down and played very well. He allowed just seven catches on 13 targets for 52 yards and picked off three passes. PFF rated him as the fifth best safety among players with more than 600 snaps, grading his run defense and coverage sixth in the NFL.

Harris is a remarkably smart player whose familiarity with Zimmer’s defense and experience as a backup set him up to be prepared for a starting role.

What didn’t work:

While the Vikings’ defense held Chicago in Week 17 down for a large portion of the game, Harris did not have a great performance. He put together his third lowest overall grade by PFF and his worst tackling grade since his rookie year (2015).

Best case scenario for 2019:

If Harris, a Restricted Free Agent, returns to Minnesota and continues to work well alongside Smith.

Worst case scenario for 2019: 

If Harris is given the full-time starting gig in 2019 and proves to be a flash in the pan.

Jayron Kearse

Zimmer said since Day 1 he was a fan of Kearse’s unique skillset. It finally was put to use in 2018. Kearse became a part of a package the Vikings called the “big nickel.” He played anywhere between two and 37 snaps, depending on the opponent’s personnel. The 2016 seventh-round pick lined up in the slot on 132 of his 202 defensive snaps. Going forward, he should give the Vikings an extra weapon to face off with opposing teams’ athletic tight ends.

George Iloka

While Iloka had previous experience with Zimmer, things did not go they way he hoped. He played just 40 defensive snaps and acted mostly as a special teamer.

Options

Smith will be back. Everything else is in flux.

— The Vikings would save $5.5 million if they released Sendejo

— If the Vikings believe depth is key, they could approach Sendejo about restructuring his deal.

— Harris’s tender may make for a difficult choice. If it’s too low, another team could give him an offer. If it’s higher than that, the Vikings will have to pay more. Last year it cost $2.9 million for a second-round tender and $4.9 million for a first-round tender.

— If the Vikings didn’t believe Sendejo or Harris was the answer, they could try to go big-game fishing with top free agents Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu. It wouldn’t be easy to afford either, but other subtractions like Sheldon Richardson and Anthony Barr could open up space to afford another star.

— With Smith entering the back half of his prime, the Vikings could draft a safety in the first or second round with hopes of that player taking over long term.





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