The Vikings signed the most irreplaceable player on their roster to a contract extension Monday.
Nope, not Adrian Peterson, the future Hall of Famer who led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns last season, nor Teddy Bridgewater, the much-ballyhooed QB around whom the front office has committed significant resources to aid the passing attack.
We’re talking about safety Harrison Smith, recipient of a reported five-year, $51.25 million contract extension that will make him the highest-paid safety in the NFL.
“You’ve seen it from his rookie year on,” GM Rick Spielman told the Vikings’ website. “It’s hard to find a guy with that size that plays as aggressively as he does, but also has very unique instincts. We feel very strongly that he’s one of the difference makers on our defense that can make game-changing plays, and those are the guys you want to keep around.”
To say the least. Smith finally made his Pro Bowl debut last season—one year later than he deserved to—as he solidified his status among the game’s top safeties. Pro Football Focus actually graded him out as the best at his position, ahead of names like Earl Thomas and Eric Berry.
Debate his actual place there amongst yourselves, but there is no denying how much he means to the Vikings’ defense. Smith is the embodiment of what coach Mike Zimmer wants for his scheme: an aggressive, intelligent, hard-nosed playmaker with the ability to take on a variety of roles. In his 29 regular-season games since Zimmer arrived in 2014, Smith has 158 tackles, seven interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 4.5 sacks.
The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, either. Top-shelf safeties come at a premium within the NFL not just because of what they accomplish but because of what they allow other players to do. Zimmer can roll his frequent double A-gap blitzes or turn loose his athletic group of linebackers knowing that Smith is on the back end to help clean up any messes.
Take him out of the lineup, as happened early in a blowout home loss to Seattle in December or in the following week’s Thursday night game, and the Vikings’ defense has to become a far more vanilla operation.
Hammering home Smith’s importance even harder is the Vikings’ continued struggle to find a complementary player to line up next to him in the defensive backfield. Andrew Sendejo filled that role for 13 starts last season; Minnesota signed veteran Michael Griffin and drafted Jayron Kearse in hopes one could push Sendejo for the gig.
Peterson long has been the face of this franchise, even when he wasn’t on the roster for much of the 2014 season. He was the centerpiece of last season’s 11–5 record and NFC North title, carrying the Vikings to a top-five finish on the ground even as Bridgewater & Co. ranked just 31st through the air. By spending a first-round pick this year on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, Spielman made it obvious (if it was not already) that the Vikings would love Bridgewater to raise his game moving forward.
Were the Vikings to lose either Peterson or Bridgewater, their hopes for staying in contention would take a significant hit. Veteran Shaun Hill is the backup QB behind Bridgewater, with eight starts in the past five seasons, all in 2014. When Peterson was absent during the ’14 campaign, then-rookie Jerick McKinnon was Minnesota’s leading rusher, topping out at 570 yards.
The notion that 1,000-yard running backs can be found anywhere is a bit misguided—while technically true given the UDFAs and late-round picks who have thrived, it greatly simplifies the entire process. Peterson was in the MVP discussion for a good while last season, and rightfully so.
But the construction of this team would make it easier to weather the storm without Peterson than without Smith. At its heart, Minnesota wants to outmuscle its opponents, and it needs a fearsome defense to do so.
Smith is the unquestioned quarterback of that unit, a perfect fit for Zimmer’s game plan. The Vikings were smart to lock him up through 2021, because they would find it almost impossible to replace him if he left.