Should the Vikings Have Let Anthony Harris Walk in Free Agency?
One of the most impactful moves the Vikings made this offseason was a somewhat surprising one. With all of the evidence suggesting that they were going to let star safety Anthony Harris walk in free agency, they applied the franchise tag at the last minute to keep Harris around.
But was that the right decision?
In his ranking of all 32 teams' offseasons (the Vikings came in at No. 19) ESPN's Bill Barnwell made the argument that it wasn't.
In part, the Vikings were hamstrung by franchising safety Anthony Harris, which was a bit of a surprise. While he has intercepted nine passes since moving into the starting lineup during the 2018 season, it's not a great use of resources for them to commit nearly $23 million of cap space to their safeties in 2020.
The financial aspect of keeping Harris was one of the main reasons why it initially seemed unlikely that the Vikings would do so. Back at the combine in February, Mike Zimmer said that "if you put up the positions most important on defense, it's probably not going to be safety." Given that they already are committing $10.75 million to Harrison Smith this year, retaining Harris on the $11.44 million franchise tag means the Vikings are allocating over 11 percent of the salary cap to their two starting safeties.
I would have let Harris leave and used the $11.4 million in cap space created to go after an edge rusher. The Vikings reportedly shopped Harris for a draft pick, but I suspect they would have netted a fifth- or sixth-round compensatory pick if they had let him leave. They were reportedly negotiating an extension with Harris before the draft, and if they can get a deal done and reduce his 2020 cap hold, they could use the cap space to go after help at defensive end.
It's a valid point that franchise-tagging Harris prevented the Vikings from spending to address some of their other holes, including defensive end. If they let Harris walk and added a cheaper second safety via the draft or free agency, maybe they're able to keep Everson Griffen or target a high-profile free agent as his replacement. Letting Harris walk also would've netted the Vikings a compensatory pick, and I'd guess it would've been a third- or fourth-rounder, not a 5 or 6 like Barnwell suggests.
There's certainly plenty of reason to take Barnwell's side on this one and question the Vikings' decision to franchise tag Harris. However, there are also several reasons to take the opposite side and support the move.
The most obvious one is that Harris is an outstanding player whose impact is felt in every game. He was Pro Football Focus's No. 1 safety in the entire NFL last season, posting a breakout year in which the former undrafted free agent led the league with seven interceptions across the regular season and playoffs. Harris has incredible ball-hawking instincts in coverage and is also a very sound tackler. By keeping Harris and Smith together, the Vikings are returning one of their biggest strengths, and there's something to be said for that.
Also, it can be argued that having two elite safeties will help with the transition to a new wave of cornerbacks in Minnesota. The Vikings are replacing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander with Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, and a number of other young players. As Zimmer looks to coach up his young corners, having Smith and Harris around to help erase mistakes and be the leaders of the secondary could be very beneficial.
Lastly, I'm not sure the Vikings have as big of a need at the other defensive end spot as Barnwell makes it seem. They'll miss Griffen, but Ifeadi Odenigbo is ready to step into that spot after a breakout seven-sack season last year. With Odenigbo and perhaps some D.J. Wonnum and Anthony Zettel mixed in, the Vikings could still get solid production from the defensive end opposite Danielle Hunter. The dropoff from Griffen to Odenigbo might be a lot smaller than the dropoff from Harris to whoever his replacement would've been if the Vikings had let him depart in free agency.
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