Toward the end of Thursday's Welcome to Free Agency press conference, Executive Vice President/General Manager Howie Roseman was asked about his approach during this roster-building period of time with the team having limited wiggle room within the $182.5 million salary cap. Could the Eagles be spenders? What would they look for as the first wave of headline-making signings came and went?
"We're looking for guys that we think fit our scheme, that we think fit our culture, and we think have an opportunity to be here as we kind of build this thing back," Roseman said. "If there's an opportunity to improve our team, we're going to look at that. We're continuing to do that. I would say if the fit's right, we'll do it."
Two days later, the Eagles found the right "fit" at the safety position, agreeing to terms with veteran Anthony Harris on a one-year contract. He has a chance to gain significant playing time, given that Rodney McLeod is rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last season's December 13 victory over New Orleans and the other starter, Jalen Mills, signed with New England in free agency.
Harris is a baller, having started the last three seasons in Minnesota – the final nine games of the 2018 season, all 14 games he played in 2019 when Harris recorded six interceptions to tie for the league lead, and 16 games in the 2020 campaign. Harris is familiar with concepts that Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon will employ – Gannon coached in Minnesota as a defensive quality control coach and assistant secondary coach from 2014-2017 and helped develop Harris – and he should be able to help translate the defensive scheme to the rest of the defense.
Undrafted in 2015 coming out of Virginia, where he was a teammate of McLeod's in 2011 and has, in fact, followed a similar career path, Harris began his time in Minnesota on the practice squad before his promotion to the active roster in December of that season. Harris worked with Gannon after suffering a shoulder injury in college, a likely reason Harris wasn't drafted. For much of that rookie season, Harris built up his body strength and dug into the scheme.
Harris' intelligence helped him learn the defense as he fully embraced the team culture and his versatility impressed the coaching staff. Slowly but surely, Harris was earning the trust of the coaching staff, working with Gannon in his development.
The 2019 season was Harris's breakout year. He was around the football all season with the six interceptions and adding 11 passes defensed. He recorded a then-career-best 60 total tackles and was a leader for a Vikings defense that allowed just 18.9 points per game, ranking fifth best in the league. Minnesota tied for fifth in the league with 49 quarterback sacks and ranked fourth in the league with 31 total takeaways. Harris and fellow safety Harrison Smith teamed up to become one of the best safety duos in the league.
Last season was different for Minnesota's defense. The sack total fell off to 23, and without the pressure up front, the secondary wasn't nearly as effective. Harris played under the franchise tag in 2020 and recorded a career-best 104 tackles. He has been, according to Pro Football Focus, one of the best safeties in the league the last three seasons – ranking fifth out of 100 in 2018 and second out of 98 in 2019. His PFF grade of 90.6 over the past three years is tops in the league among all safeties.
Gannon has described the approach his staff will take with players, saying that it's in the best interests of everyone for the coaches to put the players in positions of strength.
"A 'serve' mentality," he said in a recent interview for the Eagles Insider podcast. "I want our players to know, and I've talked to most of them, that's why we're here – the staff, myself, the head coach, all the defensive coaches – we're here to make these guys the best player they can be and really the reason behind that is it's good for the team, it's good for our defense, and it's good for them. I don't know what a 'player's coach' is but I hope that we'll connect with them and they understand that everything we do will serve them and get them to hit their ceiling as a player. That's really why we're here and every decision that we make will have that in mind."
Given that explanation, it makes sense that the Eagles will give Harris a chance to go get the football. His nine interceptions over the last three seasons rank sixth among all safeties and his 24 passes defensed rank seventh. We aren't quite sure of Gannon's intentions, but he's spoken of being highly influenced working under acclaimed defensive minds Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and Matt Eberflus in Indianapolis. Gannon wants to be aggressive and take the football away – something the Vikings did very well when Gannon was there and something Indianapolis did so well in 2019 (ranking tied for 10th in the league with 23) and 2020 (ranking fifth in the NFL with 25). In three seasons with the Colts, Gannon's secondary had 45 total interceptions to tie for sixth most in the league.
Harris is a durable player, a team leader, active in the community, and is going to bring young players along. His ability to process helps him get to the right spot at the right time and at the age of 29, Harris will be asked to bring along the young players in the defense. Harris' skill set is described as "rounded" at every responsibility Gannon will ask of his safeties – the idea is to move the safeties around and not have them in any "set" spot in the defense
This isn't a headline-making signing, but it's what Roseman and the Eagles are looking for – a good fit. For Gannon, who is implementing his defense here, having Harris around means he has a player he knows he can move around the defense and not skip a beat or miss an assignment. For a defense with some needs, adding Harris makes every bit of sense for 2021 as the Eagles look to be a defense that gives offenses a lot of looks, brings pressure, creates havoc, and takes the football away.