The Anthony Harris saga — while still entirely unresolved — was a never-ending “will they, won’t they” game of chicken for a large portion of the offseason.
Will the Vikings trade Anthony Harris? Will they sign him and keep him long term? Is the team really willing to shell out two top-tier safety contracts with himself and Harrison Smith?
As it stands, Harris will be playing out the 2020 season on the franchise tag – a one-year, fully guaranteed $11.4 million agreement after which, if no new contract is agreed upon, he will become a free agent for the 2021 season.
On one hand, many talking heads seem to agree with keeping Harris on the team. With the depletion of veteran cornerbacks such as Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander, the team will be relying on youth to step up to the task in the secondary, and having a veteran, top-tier safety in Harris could certainly make a difference and lighten the load.
On the other hand, many argue that shelling out two top-tier safety contracts, regardless of talent, is a mistake for a team with so many holes and question marks on the roster.
Take Bill Barnwell, for example, who wrote in an article for ESPN that, “While he [Harris] 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 (…) I would have let Harris leave and used the $11.4 million in cap space created to go after an edge rusher.”
Despite the naysayers, it turns out that keeping Anthony Harris on the team may very well be a genius move by the Vikings.
And, whether they are privy to it or not, they may very well be leading the pack on the next wave of analytics.
What is WAR?
WAR, in this context, stands for wins above replacement. And what is it good for? Evaluating players.
Essentially, WAR shows how valuable a player is while on the field. It shows how many more wins that player is worth than a replacement player at the same position.
So, for example, if wide receiver A has a WAR of 0.8, that means that player is personally worth 0.8 more wins than a wide receiver off the bench.
WAR has been a standard metric in the MLB for years now, and has recently been utilized by the NBA and the NHL. It is not complete standard practice in the NFL as of yet due to the difficulty comparing players with a lack of stats (such as offensive line), but PFF has done a great job coming up with their own model.
In this paper submitted to the Sloan Sports Conference, we can see this table:
This table shows the average WAR for each position group. So, the average NFL quarterback contributes 1.63 wins over replacement, the average NFL running back contributes 0.10 wins over replacement, and so on.
As we can see, the quarterback position is in such its’ own universe that it should just be disregarded entirely. But do you notice something interesting here?
According to this study, the most valuable position group in the NFL (outside of the quarterback) is the wide receivers. Not far behind as the second most valuable (and well above the rest of the pack), are cornerbacks and safeties.
What about the WAR of top-tier players?
Now that we know the average WAR of NFL players, let’s look deeper at the WAR of the best of the best.
In this article by PFF, they write about the WAR of top-10 positional players, and how that should affect draft position.
They offer this chart:
|Position||Top-10 WAR Average|
Once again, quarterbacks are in their own stratosphere, but we can see something even more interesting in this data.
A top-10 wide receiver is still second best on this chart, but now according to this, a top-10 safety has the second best WAR of any position group. And it’s not even close.
What does this have to do with the Vikings?
So, at this point, we have learned about WAR, we know why it’s important and we know the values of each position group.
After removing the quarterback, we know that the average safety is not only the third most important position in the league in terms of WAR, but a top-10 safety of Anthony Harris’ caliber is the second highest value position in the league – and it’s’ not even close.
So here is why the Vikings may be leading the new wave of analytics: has it clicked yet that the Vikings have two top-10 safeties in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris?
Between the two players, they combine for a whopping 1.2 wins over replacement.
Going back to our chart, 1.2 WAR is the defensive equivalent of four top-10 linebackers, four top-10 edge rushers, six top-10 defensive linemen, and whatever other combination you can come up with.
One has to wonder: is having two elite safeties the future of the NFL?
It was clear to see the difference that Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith made in the defensive unit last year.
Despite Xavier Rhodes being graded as the 7th worst cornerback in the NFL last year by PFF,
Despite arguably the best cornerback on the team in Trae Waynes finishing as just the 46th best cornerback in the league,
The Vikings passing defense finished 3rd in the NFL in interceptions, and 6th in completion percentage.
Teams with a starting cornerback who barely cracks the top 40%, and another starting cornerback that is bottom of the league, should not be putting up those types of defensive stats.
And yet, here we are, because of the brilliance of Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, and how valuable two top-10 safeties can be to a team.
Whether the Vikings intend to keep Anthony Harris long term or not, after this season NFL minds may finally be waking up to how big of a difference an elite safety unit can be.
We’ve seen that having a top-10 safety is the second most valuable player on a team (outside of the quarterback).
Having two top-10 safeties? That’s just ridiculous.