The Vikings signed free agent George Iloka to add another element to the defensive backfield. Daniel House explains how he could fit in the team's system.
The Vikings added another talented defensive back to the league’s top defense in 2017.
Veteran safety George Iloka agreed to a one-year deal to re-unite with head coach Mike Zimmer. Illoka played safety in Zimmer’s defense from 2012-13 in Cincinnati. With just over $10 million in available cap space, the Vikings managed to pull off the signing, despite completing two large free agent acquisitons this offseason.
When Iloka hit the free agent market in 2016, the Vikings were one of the teams he strongly considered. However, he preferred the Bengals’ offer and signed a 5-year, $30 million deal. In a slightly surprising move, Cincinnati released Illoka over the weekend to clear cap space. He was due $5.3 million in base salary and his release freed up $4.4 million in cap space. They also have been impressed with rookie safety Jessie Bates, who was a better fit in Teryl Austin’s defensive scheme.
Iloka started 76 of his 83 career games after being selected by the Bengals in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft. He ranked third on the team with 79 tackles in 2017, grabbing one interception and six pass breakups. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Iloka has played the fifth-most snaps at safety over the past five seasons. His most successful seasons were a product of working within Mike Zimmer’s system. In 2016, the strong relationship between Zimmer and Illoka almost led him to Minnesota. It’s rare a player of Iloka’s caliber is released a few weeks before roster cuts occur. The chance to rotate into Zimmer’s defense for one year could greatly benefit Iloka. If he has a strong season, he may cash in during next year’s free agency cycle.
With starter Andrew Sendejo already in the fold, Iloka will likely rotate into the defense through various packages. After this signing, Zimmer could place three safeties on the field to create a unique nickel package. Perhaps Andrew Sendejo could play a hybrid linebacker/safety role next to Eric Kendricks, while Illoka mans the backend with Harrison Smith. With this flexibility, the team could rush Anthony Barr off the edge more, which certainly fits his skill-set extremely well. From time-to-time, Barr has been working with the defensive line group during drills to develop the necessary pass rushing moves, too.
Not only that, but Iloka could simply rotate into the safety spot more often to keep the defense fresh. Andrew Sendejo has dealt with injuries in the past, so having a durable, talented player with knowledge of the system is an added bonus. It’s rare to add someone like Iloka, who has such a vast familiarity with the system, just weeks before the season starts. If he succeeds, the Vikings could choose to re-sign him at the end of the year because there is an out in Andrew Sendejo's contract.
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Iloka has rare, length, strength and athletic measures. Essentially, he is the exact type of player Mike Zimmer hoped Jayron Kearse would develop into. This signing likely signals Kearse could be on the outside looking in when roster cuts occur in a few weeks. Perhaps the team could dangle a draft pick and Kearse in exchange for an offensive lineman, too. It’s clear the Vikings may consider making acquisitions for a linebacker and swing tackle.
This was a luxury signing to add another element to Zimmer’s defense. Iloka’s familiarity with the defense will make the transition much easier and helps upgrade the overall talent on the roster quickly. Mike Zimmer loves adding former players who have thrived in his system and Iloka is the latest example. The coaching staff will be in the laboratory developing unique sub-packages to get him on the field and use the unique talent he brings to the table.
Following the addition of Iloka, the Vikings managed to sign quarterback Kirk Cousins, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this offseason. Not to mention, they reached extensions with Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs to keep the team’s young core together. The Vikings have quietly put together arguably one of the team’s deepest defensive back groups in recent memory, following the additions of Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, along with Illoka.
Minnesota’s excellent cap and roster management skills have helped them allocate resources to complete a luxury signing like Iloka’s.