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What does Harrison Smith bring to the Vikings in 2023?

The year is 2012. It’s the first round of the NFL Draft, and the Vikings are on the clock with the 29th pick after trading up with the Baltimore Ravens. Without knowing it, Minnesota was on the verge of making a decision that would shape its defense for the next decade.

Roger Goodell’s voice reverberates throughout the Radio City Music Hall, “With the 29th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings select Harrison Smith, defensive back, Notre Dame.”

Smith made an immediate impact for the Vikings, winning the starting safety job outright and making his first NFL career start in the season opener against the Jaguars. In his rookie season, he would record 74 solo tackles (104 combined), one sack, one forced fumble, ten passes defended, and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. His rookie-year performance earned him a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.

Smith would continue to play at an All-Team level throughout the next ten seasons. During that time, he would secure six Pro Bowl selections, one first-team All-Pro selection, and one second-team All-Pro selection.

The Hitman would become a player all fans knew and loved. Known for his ability to make plays and lay the hammer when needed, The Hitman was more than a fitting monicker. His fans and teammates loved him, and his opponents feared him. What more could you ask for?

Fast forward to 2023, Smith is now 34 years old and has become a household name for the Vikings, but uncertainty in what team Smith would play for in the coming season loomed. It’s the second year of a new coaching regime, the defense did not perform well the year prior – enough to warrant a change in defensive coordinators – and rumblings of Smith beginning to decline were circulating. As the team parted ways with veteran players and looked to build the team of tomorrow, Vikings fans had to face the possibility of saying goodbye to their beloved Hitman. Smith, however, would take a pay cut to play for the Vikings another year.

That brings us to the present, where Smith is poised to start for the newly anointed defensive coordinator, Brian Flores. Fans are likely wondering what Harrison Smith brings to the Vikings this year. So let’s dig in and determine what the team and fans can expect from the Hitman in 2023.

A player that wants to be here

First and foremost, it’s hard to ignore the loyalty of Harrison Smith. He was due to make 14.7M this year but took nearly a fifty percent pay cut to bring his 2023 base salary to 8M with 2M in incentives. In a time where every athlete is chasing the proverbial bag, Smith decided to reduce his pay to stay with the team that drafted him. If that’s not a statement of “I want to be here,” then I’m not sure what is. But Smith so much as said so in his own words via a media day in May. Smith cited the Wilfs and revered their accomplishments with the Vikings and their dedication to the community. The same community he joined in 2012 and now feels deeply connected to. Solidifying his desire to remain with the Vikings, Smith wanted to play for Brian Flores, who carries a reputation for an aggressive, blitz-heavy, defensive scheme. Smith praised Flores for his mentality and approach to the game. In Smith’s words, “It just felt right to stay.”

It’s evident that Smith has developed a profound affection for the team that drafted him. He has seen and experienced the best and the worst of the Vikings throughout his eleven seasons with the team. From the Vikings managing only five wins his rookie year to the thirteen-win, Minneapolis Miracle, season in 2017; he’s been through it all with this organization. Those ebbs and flows of success create a burning desire to accomplish the one thing Smith has yet to do: win a Super Bowl.

With Smith, we’re getting a man who wants to finish his career with the Vikings and bring a Lombardi to Minnesota, just as much as the fans.

A playmaker

The Hitman has always had an affinity for making big plays, and the impressive part was that Smith always seemed to make those big plays when they mattered most. Whether it was coming up with a crucial sack, breaking up a threatening pass, or making a game-sealing interception, Smith has always been able to put himself in the right spot at the right time, and most importantly, he executes when he’s in that position.

The rumor is that Smith’s age has caused him to regress but I would argue the Hitman is playing just as well as he always has. In 2022, Smith accounted for 66 solo tackles (85 combined), one forced fumble, ten passes defended, and five interceptions per ESPN statistics. Those numbers align with his previous seasons, and his five interceptions tied his season-high mark. Notably, he failed to record a sack in 2022. A stat he replicated once before, in 2013, when he only played in eight games due to a foot injury. However, in 2022, this was largely attributable to the non-aggressive approach of Ed Donatell, the previous defensive coordinator.

Under Donatell, the Vikings took second in the NFL for most defensive snaps with two-high safeties; consequently, Smith only blitzed a total of fourteen plays across eighteen games. Donatell was not playing to his All-Pro safety’s strengths. That will change in 2023 with Brian Flores in charge. Flores loves to create havoc for offenses. He accomplishes this by loading the box and blitzing like crazy. Players like Smith factor in heavily to this type of scheme and are critical to its success. Flores will allow Smith to do what he does best, and the two will be a beautiful marriage of player and coach.

Fans can expect the Hitman to bring big hits, electric play, and a few sacks in 2023.

A leader and mentor

Smith is now the longest-tenured Viking currently rostered. He is a seasoned veteran with eleven NFL seasons under his belt, and with that comes a certain level of responsibility. At least, that’s how Smith sees it. He remembers being taught by the veterans when he entered the league and attributes parts of his success to the teaching he received. As a result, Smith feels he must impart his wisdom and experience to the young players to give them the best chance at success.

Smith has never been an outwardly vocal leader; although, he has always led by example. A player that excels the way Smith has causes other players to take note. His dedication to his craft will leave a lasting impression on the younger players. He spends countless hours in the film room critiquing himself, constantly striving to improve; in turn, he is known as a savvy defender with killer instincts. He lauds communication and fundamentals as keys to success. He is a self-aware player that understands the balance of the mental and physical aspects of the game. Not all leaders need to be loud and eccentric, and actions speak louder than words.

Smith is embracing the role of a mentor. He understands that can manifest in not only football but also a player’s personal life. Whether it be helping the new guys acclimate to the area or passing on the football knowledge he’s gained over the years, Smith is ready to become the teacher. He understands the impact a veteran can have on a young player and welcomes the mentor role.

In 2023, Smith will be an example for the young Vikings players.


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