When I saw George Iloka got cut by the Bengals - apparently a salary cap casualty - I wondered if Mike Zimmer would attempt to sign him. After all he made an attempt a couple years ago, and sure enough he did - only this time successfully.
Signing Iloka looks more to be an opportunity signing, rather than a need signing, as the Vikings have All-Pro Harrison Smith, and Andrew Sendejo - who is coming off his best season - as returning starters.
So how does Iloka fit as a Viking?
WHAT ILOKA BRINGS TO THE VIKINGS
First, coming from Cincinnati - which still runs a Zimmer defense - Iloka is well versed in the Vikings defensive scheme. Zimmer and Iloka both said he was familiar with around 80-85% of the Vikings’ defensive calls, so that’s about as close to plug-and-play as you can get for a free-agent signing. Iloka is also coming off his 2nd best year with a 71.4 overall PFF rating last season - average and below Smith, Sendejo and even Anthony Harris.
So, it’s doubtful Iloka starts at either safety spot this year, barring injury, given Harrison Smith is an All-Pro and Sendejo is an established starter coming off his best season.
But even though Iloka may not be a starter, he could see the field in a number of ways.
First, Iloka could likely have a special teams role. Obviously the Vikings punt coverage team could use some help after it's performance the first two preseason games, and Iloka could help out there and in other special teams as well. He is a larger (6’4”, 225 lbs.) safety with presumably more speed than a linebacker, so that has value on special teams.
And speaking of linebackers - Iloka could fit as a strong safety/linebacker covering a tight end. His 6’4” frame and greater athleticism than a typical linebacker could be a better matchup in coverage - particularly in the red zone - who could deny the tall throw to a tight end in the end zone.
It could be also that if Anthony Barr is used more as a pass rusher this year, having a taller safety/linebacker to cover a tight end makes some sense. That is usually a more difficult assignment for either Sendejo or Smith, and it’s also not Barr’s forte either.
IF ILOKA IS IN, WHO’S OUT?
Lastly, if the Vikings choose to keep Iloka on the roster - which seems likely - that will likely impact the status of other safeties - sooner and/or later.
Beyond Smith and Sendejo as starters, Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, Tray Matthews and Jack Tocho are fighting for backup spots. Harris and Kearse have been core special teamers that have played very well in those roles. Tocho has flashed well in coverage during preseason, but has been inconsistent as well. Matthews has made some good plays both as a safety and special teamer, but isn’t up to speed on the defensive scheme. Kearse has missed both pre-season games with minor injuries - which may not be the real reason - and this hasn’t been Anthony Harris’ best training camp either. This is also his last year on Harris’ rookie deal.
Beyond that, Andrew Sendejo is going from a $3.5 million salary cap hit this year to a $5.5 million cap hit next year, with only $50k dead cap this year. While I doubt Zimmer would replace Sendejo at the last minute in training camp this year, it may be that Sendejo - who turns 31 next month, may not be in the Vikings plans beyond this season.
It’s also possible that the Vikings opt to keep five safeties on the roster this season, and one less linebacker, particularly if Iloka can fulfill special teams responsibilities.
But if I had to guess at the moment, it seems more likely Iloka replaces Kearse, and Harris may have more of a challenge from Tocho than last year. Beyond that, Iloka, 28, could be groomed as Sendejo’s replacement next year if he’s deemed worthy of an extension.
Last, it’s also possible that Iloka doesn’t make the roster in two weeks and is released. That’s also happened before with defensive guys Zimmer has signed from his old team.
But at the end of the day Iloka’s release was an opportunity for the Vikings to explore a potential upgrade to safety depth, and a potential replacement for Sendejo down the line.
We’ll see how it pans out.