Why Vikings safety Harrison Smith deserves contract extension
The final game of the Minnesota Vikings’ 2015 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but the season in its entirety was one of the more successful campaigns in recent years (first NFC North championship since 2009). One of the core players in Mike Zimmer’s defense is safety Harrison Smith, who is entering his fifth year in the league and final year of his contract. As analyst Nathan Jahnke identified yesterday, if Smith hits the free-agent market in 2017, he will likely be one of the most-sought-after defensive players.
The Vikings should, however, reward Smith with a contract extension that would make him one of the highest-paid, if not the highest, safety in the league prior to him becoming a free agent. Taking comparable deals into consideration, as well as the market trend for defensive backs, his contract should be somewhere north of $9 million annually.
Smith finished with PFF’s top overall grade among NFL safeties in 2015, following a second-place rank in 2014. In only 806 snaps last season, he tied for fifth in sacks, second in QB hits, and finished fifth in pass-rush grade among safeties. Smith missed three games and was still able to finish the season near the top of these categories.
His hard-hitting style of play is reflected throughout the roster and provides the team with an added edge of toughness. While many hard-hitting defensive players are often penalized, Smith is one of the least-penalized safeties in the league. While many rules in today’s NFL favor the protection of offensive players, his ability to make game-changing plays is something that should not be taken lightly. The difficulty of being a disciplined tackler while still playing at true game-speed is a factor that is often underestimated.
The game against the Raiders in 2015 provided a perfect example of a particular play Smith made that utterly changed the complexion of the game. In Oakland’s prior outing, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper connected on seven passes for 88 yards and a touchdown, raising the question of whether or not the Vikings would be able to mitigate the Raiders’ passing attack. Down 0-13 in the second quarter (about 11 minutes left on the clock), the Raiders ran a play-action that rolled Carr to his right, ultimately throwing a pass to a seemingly wide-open Cooper.
Before Cooper came down with ball, Smith came in, lowered his shoulder, and laid a perfect hit on him. The referees actually threw a flag, and after a lengthy discussion, decided not to penalize Smith. Even though Cooper recorded a 15-yard catch on the play, the hit was so impactful that he seemed to hesitate before going up for a catch for the remainder of the game. A play like this often isn’t discussed as game-altering, but in reality, it leaves a lasting impression.
At the 2016 NFL combine, Zimmer said that if the Vikings can draft a player with a similar skill-set to Smith’s, he might actually be able to get even more out of Smith. The fact that Zimmer believes he has yet to tap into his safety’s full potential should be extremely exciting for the Vikings, as the Minnesota defense could go from a top-eight-graded unit (as the team finished in 2015) to top-five very quickly. The combination of Zimmer’s confidence and creative defensive mind could make Harrison Smith the best safety in the league next season.