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If this is it for Harrison Smith, he's put together a Hall of Fame career

Vikings safety could be playing his final game this week. During his 12 years he's made a Hall of Fame case and left a lasting legacy of excellence.

EAGAN — Prior to returning to the Minnesota Vikings for the 2023 season, Harrison Smith took stock of everything.

He asked himself some important questions:

Am I still fast enough?


Can I still catch the ball?


Do I want to learn Brian Flores’ defense?

Absolutely yes.

So The Hitman decided to come back. But he admitted in May that thoughts of retirement were creeping in.

“Can’t play forever and it’s a big world out there,” Smith said.

Now as the Vikings head to Detroit for Week 18 with only a 3% chance of making the playoffs according to the New York Times Playoff Simulator, the six-time Pro Bowl safety could be playing his final game in purple.

To be clear, Smith has given no indication of his plans. He will go through the same process as last offseason and ask himself the same questions before making that decision.

If this week’s game is Smith’s swan song, he walks off the field as one of the greatest players in team history and an easy choice for the Ring of Honor.

As rare as a Ring of Honor-caliber career might be, those who have coached and played with Smith want even more accolades for the 12-year veteran. They want him to have a bust in Canton, Ohio, inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But there is a problem with Smith’s resume. When it comes to the safety position, traditional statistics don’t do a very good job of capturing the impact of an elite player. While Smith’s box score stats like sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions and tackles do match up with some of the best safeties in the last 20 years, trying to tell the story of a great safety with only those stats would be like doing the SAT and not getting to include the essay portion.

So as Smith possibly approaches a walk off into the sunset, let’s do the essay portion and try to better fully understand his value to the Vikings and his nuanced case for the Hall of Fame…

Harrison Smith

Artwork by Jonathan Harrison

15 seconds or less

Someday Hall of Fame voters are going to be tasked with believing in something less tangible when it comes to Harrison Smith. There are players like Randy Moss whose highlight reels alone could get them into the Hall. That is difficult to do from the safety position.

That’s partly because National Football League broadcasts are made for quarterbacks and wide receivers, not strong safeties. They are designed to reward flash, not consistent excellence from down to down. It’s an entertainment product after all but the way in which the NFL is broadcasted shapes the perception of players from the outside world. While millions watching at home can easily see a great throw or catch, many plays of equal value to the outcome of a game are not as obvious. Broadcasts also focus on controversial players and point the cameras in the way of players who have storylines surrounding them. Consistency is not that interesting.

These realities have not played in Smith’s favor when it comes to the football-consuming world understanding his value to the Vikings and he does very little outside of the game to let everyone know about it.

“He’s not big on trying to highlight himself on media or social media where a lot of other players are,” former Viking safety Andrew Sendejo said over the phone. “I think if he was a lot flashier, a lot more self promoting about all the great plays he’s made then people wouldn’t even second guess his Hall of Fame status.”

Certain teams are also on TV more often than others and the opinions of analysts color our viewpoints. Since being drafted by the Vikings in 2012, Smith has only appeared in seven playoff games, which is not a stat that’s reflective of his performance, rather it demonstrates the fact he hasn’t gotten the same air time of Super Bowl winners.

“If you are on a team every year that goes deep in the playoffs or you go to Super Bowls then you get more primetime games and more people are aware of how good you actually are,” Sendejo said. “If you are on national games and the commentators are highlighting you – there’s so many good players that they could do that for a lot of people and really blow people up and make them more known because of a replay and pointing out, ‘damn look how good this play is by the safety right here.’”

Not that Smith hasn’t made flashy plays. He has the 10th most sacks among safeties in NFL history. The issue is that there are only so many opportunities for sexy plays for safeties in comparison to QBs who touch the ball every play or receivers who catch 6-10 passes per game. Hall of Famer John Lynch, for example, had either an interception or sack in just 35 of his 224 games. HOF’er Troy Polamalu had 39 games with a sack or pick out of 158 appearances.

The things that separate great safeties happen like a beating drum on a play-to-play basis.

To help understand, Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones makes a comparison between what Smith does for the defense to a quarterback for the offense. Take a simple handoff that goes for a big gain.

“You see a quarterback hand the ball off and you think, ‘OK he’s just handing the ball off,’ you didn’t see all the process that went into him handing the ball off, all the communication,” Jones explains.

The quarterback may have read the defense and change the play to a run based on what he saw. There’s no QB stat for the audibles you call at the line of scrimmage, only the coach and team understand what really happened. Same goes for safeties. There’s no stat for winning the pre-snap cat-and-mouse game against the opposing offense.

“He helps guys get lined up, he’s our best communicator on the field,” Jones explained. “He gets us in and out of different calls and checks. We visit with him from a coaching perspective and say, ‘hey, we would like for you to do this but if you see that then do that,’ so we give him a lot of leeway because he’s earned it and he can handle it. He’s really an extension of the coach on the field.”

Jones goes through all the things that Smith has to keep in the front of his mind as he is deciding whether to change coverages or alert the secondary to something the offense might be cooking up.

“He’s thinking about: What’s the personnel? What is the down-and-distance? What is the situation of the game? What is the formation that they’re in? Where is their premium receiver, their superstar?” Jones said. “What if that guy motions? That could change the call and my responsibility. What’s the split? Where’s the quarterback and is he giving any clues?”

He has to process that all in about 15 seconds, right?

“Or less,” Jones said.

There is a trickle-down effect to Smith’s processing and communication. Everyone else on the field knows who they are looking toward to get on track when things get crazy.

“One of the main things is the peace of mind that…if something gets a little sideways or there’s a little confusion that there is someone you can look to that will get you in the right call or get you in the right position or at least save the play,” Sendejo said. “When you are going out there with him you know 22 is going to take care of this responsibility and his side of the ball and get everyone lined up. There were multiple times when I played with him that the whole defense didn’t know what to do and he just made a check or made a call that got us into the right call.”

Sendejo said that Smith routinely lets the rest of the defense know what to watch for from the opposing offense in between plays based on his study. He will see a formation or other tip and remind teammates to look for a play coming in their direction.

“He will never get the credit for that,” Sendejo said. “Somebody can make a great play and it might have been him the whole time saying, ‘hey, they’re about to run the ball here.’”

Even if it is difficult to pick up on TV all the things Smith is doing outside of his sacks, interceptions and tackles, take a moment as the Vikings play the Lions to watch him before the snap rather than looking at the quarterback and you will catch some of the points and gestures to his teammates. Those are a major part of what has made him great.

Another thing to watch in Harrison Smith’s potential final game as a Viking this Sunday is where he lines up on the field. The veteran safety has enjoyed an incredibly versatile role under Flores but that is hardly something new for him.

Here is a look at the positions where Smith has lined up during his career:


Smith’s versatility is a major part of his underlying value.

“Because of who he is and what he’s done in this league, the quarterback is saying, ‘where is 22?’ We can use that to our advantage,” Jones said. “If I know there is a blitz coming away from me, let me show down to get [the quarterback’s] attention toward me to help my teammate have success.”

Last year Aaron Rodgers said this on the Pat McAfee show about Smith’s deception:

“I think the way he disguises should be standard secondary teaching tape,” Rodgers said. “He’s the best in the game at that…. Played against him for a long time…he is the most difficult person I think to determine whether or not he’s blitzing.”

Bill Belichick offered a similar endorsement when the Vikings played the Patriots in 2018.

“Ed Reed, [Troy] Polamalu, when you say Smith he’s certainly right there,” Belichick said. “He’s a hard guy to read. He does an excellent job of timing his movement based on the quarterback’s cadence, the offensive formation, motion, play clock. He does an excellent job of using those things to put the offense in a difficult position. To account for him or not account for him when he’s blitzing. He’s really good.”

Imagine how many times an opposing quarterback threw the ball away because he was fooled by Smith’s alignment or pressured by his blitzes.

As tough it may be to quantify all the little impacts of Smith’s game, we can get a clearer picture than the box score stats because we have more data to work with than ever before. We can’t compare Smith’s advanced stats to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu but we can line him up against the best of the era.

Here’s how Smith stacks up to six other safeties who played their careers since PFF began publishing advanced data in 2009:

How Harrison Smith compares to some of the best safeties in the NFL during his career.

Each of these numbers has an element of cumulative effect from other players on the defensive side but we can take away that quarterbacks performed worse when throwing the ball at Smith than any of his top contemporaries. He also pressured quarterbacks more than anyone except Malcolm Jenkins and made individual run stops as often as any of the era’s legends of the position.

We can also see on paper that he has been a model of consistency, every year since 2014 grading by PFF between good and sheer greatness.

Harrison Smith's PFF grades by season.

While future Hall of Fame voters might not have as many playoff splash play highlights for Smith as they do someone like Earl Thomas or Devin McCourty, they would be wise to consider the larger impact on teammates and quarterbacks and work with these numbers that better tell the story.

“I remember us being in sync”

Since 2015, Harrison Smith has worked largely with three partner safeties: Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Harris and Cam Bynum.

Two of them were undrafted, the other was selected as a fourth-round cornerback and moved positions. Playing alongside the six-time Pro Bowler helped maximize each player’s talents and created a dynamic pairing for many successful defenses over the years.

Sendejo arrived in Minnesota in 2012 as a special teamer. He had worked his way up through the United Football League and spent time with the Cowboys before being picked up by the Vikings. After getting some starting work in 2013 and 2014, he became Smith’s full-time accomplice in the secondary in 2015 and remained there (including on the Vikings No. 1 defense in 2017) until getting banged up in 2018.

The thing Sendejo appreciated most about work with Smith was his deep passion for the details of the game. The more they played together and more they watched film, the more they saw things the same way. They got to the point where opponents could throw an unexpected look their way yet both players still knew how the other would handle it without hesitation.

“That’s a big part of a safety tandem working together, you see things very similar,” Sendejo said. “Getting reps together to you can already know what they are doing by their body language.”

In the huddle, Sendejo could tell if Smith was tired or pissed and needed a pick-me-up from his teammate. The longer they played together, the more the bond grew.

“I’ve always said that your off-the-field chemistry, the stronger the relationship is the better it will be on the field,” Sendejo said.

Anthony Harris signed with the Vikings in 2015 as an undrafted free agent from Virginia and played special teams until being called upon when Sendejo got hurt in 2018.

“[Smith] was kind of quiet at first and after a while of me showing my focus and eagerness to learn and he saw how I interacted with the coaches he started to open up in terms of giving different tips and things I could do to be better,” Harris said. “He was a guy that tried to look at every perspective of guys coming in whether it’s first round or undrafted. I felt like he made it easier for guys to focus on football and try to excel. That’s something I noticed about him pretty fast.”

Once Harris and Smith were paired together, they built a similar off-field relationship around their joy for studying the game. Smith would invite players over to his house for Monday or Thursday Night Football and they would talk football all night.

“As we spent more time in the same room, I think he was able to see in me and I was able to see in him that we both truly just love the game,” Harris said. “From an appreciation of all the details to understanding the X’s and O’s and the chess match on the field in terms of scheme and execution. That’s something we talked about a lot…I think that’s what he enjoys about the game and what keeps him going.”

In 2019, Harris led the NFL in interceptions.

“I remember us being in sync,” Harris said. “We were watching film, seeing different things, being on the same page. There were times where we were sending different plays via text message like, ‘how are you seeing this coverage?’ Sometimes we didn’t even have to verbally communicate or signal what each other were thinking. It was a nice synchronized dance. A different person taking the lead, sometimes he’s in disguise and I’m playing off him, other times I may see something else and start to disguise it and he responds. From a connection standpoint, being able to do that [in 2019] and it flowed so well, it was exciting.”

Harris said that you have to be “deep into the game” to understand what Smith does for those who play alongside him. A Look-at-the-tape type player.

After the 2020 season, Harris signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Next man up was Bynum, who played cornerback for his college career at Cal and won the starting safety job out of training camp in Year 2. This year he has ascended 11th overall by PFF grade among safeties. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three Smith safety partners have top-20 PFF seasons.

“Especially moving positions I had to lean on him a lot to be able to learn the position because as a rookie that was my first time ever playing safety so going from square one of learning the basics,” Bynum said. “Now in Year 3 to be able to progress and get to the point where I’m able to think somewhat like him as far as disguising stuff and switching things up and making decisions, I’ve been able to get to that point just by asking him questions and picking his brain all the time.”

When it comes to bringing along younger players, Smith’s leadership style is much like his play. It isn’t always the loudest but the impact is significant.

“It’s always a calming voice, never a panic, never any unsteadiness,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “He’s always level and when he talks everyone listens. I think he’s become more vocal this past year with a lot of young guys. He is an important voice and guys gravitate toward what he has to say.”

Indeed this year Smith has been asked to be more front-and-center as a leader than in years past because the defense had a number of inexperienced players. But often times he is a role model simply by going about his business.

“He’s such that measuring stick,” defensive coordinator Brian Flores said. “If Harry is doing it, they should be doing it to or some version of it. He understands that is part of his role as well. To who much is given, much is required and he understands that.”

Head coach Kevin O’Connell credited Smith with being significant in getting the defensive players accustomed to a very unique Flores defense this year.

“Harrison Smith is one of my all-time favorite players I’ve had the chance to be around as a coach,” O’Connell said. “I feel very fortunate to have been in the head coach position with a guy like Harrison that I can build a relationship with, such experience, such an incredible presence within our locker room. He’s got a great way about him at all times that makes people around him better. I think he’s been huge in the implementation of our defense this year with Flo [Brian Flores] and D.J. [Daronte Jones] and those guys on that side of the ball. I’ve been really happy with the way Harrison has really attacked his role within the defense, but also the value of him as a captain and a leader of our team. I just can’t say enough about what he’s meant to me, what he’s meant to this organization.”

How do we go about quantifying a player’s impact on everyone around them on all the days where they are not playing games?

“Hall of Fame worthy”

Traditional stats and accolades may not come close to covering what Harrison Smith has meant to the Minnesota Vikings’ organization over the last 12 years but his numbers in those categories stack up well against other defensive backs in the Hall.

He has more sacks and interceptions than Hall of Famers John Lynch and Troy Polamalu. He has six Pro Bowls, which is more than Hall of Fame finalist Rodney Harrison, 2023 inductee Ronde Barber, 2022 inductee Leroy Butler. No other active safety has six Pro Bowls and Earl Thomas is the only player who started post 2010 with more (7).


When asked if Smith has a shot at the Hall, his coaches and teammates can’t say definitively because there are other dynamics at play than just the numbers and anecdotal evidence. They all believe it’s deserved.

— “I think he’s Hall of Fame worthy,” Flores said. “I don’t want to say ‘cemented’ that but there should be conversation around that whenever he decides to move forward.”

— “You take a look at players who are in the Hall of Fame, Harrison Smith, respectfully, walks stride for stride,” Harris said.

— “He checks all categories, right?” Barr said. “The Hall of Fame… In terms of individual success and defensive success, there’s not too many people you can put above him.”

— “I think Harrison has a great shot…and eventually get that recognition that he deserves,” Sendejo said.

Nobody knows what comes next for Smith. Maybe the Vikings win and somehow they make the postseason. We have seen crazier things. Maybe he comes back for one more swing next year. Maybe he calls it a career and walks away.

“I’m not sure if it’s his last game but if he wants it to be then I hope he has one of the best games of his career and he goes out on a note that he wants,” Harris said.

If this is it, Smith leaves a lasting impression and a resume that stacks up with many of the best ever — as long as you read the essay portion.