Vikings

Hell Yea, Harrison Smith: The Best Safety in the League By the Numbers

Harrison Smith doing Harrison Smith things. Photo Courtesy of Vikings.com

With the news that Harrison Smith inked a new deal that makes him the highest-paid safety in the league (as far as average dollar amount per year), Vikings fans can rejoice and relax knowing that they have one of the top playmakers at a position that’s notoriously difficult to find.

Unfortunately for me, it’s also a position that’s incredibly difficult to isolate as far as numbers go.

Luke Inman will detail a likely much more useful film analysis of Smith here at Cold Omaha, which should give us a clue as to how one of the most versatile safeties in the league helps the Zimmer defense. For now, we can at least look at the incidental impact of having a high-level playmaker man the secondary.


Contract

We don’t have a lot of details for the contract yet, but the early indications are that it adds five years to his service to the Vikings, meaning he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season.

Many will focus on his average salary per year, which is substantial, but it is a little misleading to say that he’s the “highest-paid safety in the league,” although that is true. It just isn’t a meaningful truth.

Without accounting for the realities of the cap system, the statement leads people to believe that the Vikings value Smith more than any other team values any other safety in the NFL. While I think Smith is a good enough safety to earn that confidence, that’s not what the contract implies.

With every new year comes a new cap environment and that upward pressure on salaries is worth noting—no one is saying that the Patriots didn’t value Tom Brady when they signed him to a $10 million a year contract in 2005 even though that’s currently the 23rd largest average for a quarterback in the NFL, just behind Nick Foles’ $12 million a year debacle.

Below are the average salaries for the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, sorted by percentage of first-year cap:

Player Team Age Avg Yr 1 Cap % of Yr 1 Cap
Earl Thomas SEA 27 $10,000,000 $133,000,000.00 7.5%
Eric Berry KC 27 $10,806,000 $155,270,000.00 7.0%
Jairus Byrd NO 29 $9,000,000 $133,000,000.00 6.8%
Devin McCourty NE 28 $9,500,000 $143,280,000.00 6.6%
Harrison Smith MIN 27 $10,250,000 $155,270,000.00 6.6%
Reshad Jones MIA 28 $7,003,000 $123,000,000.00 5.7%
Kam Chancellor SEA 28 $7,000,502 $123,000,000.00 5.7%
Malcolm Jenkins PHI 28 $8,750,000 $155,270,000.00 5.6%
Morgan Burnett GB 27 $6,187,500 $123,000,000.00 5.0%
Tashaun Gipson JAC 25 $7,200,000 $155,270,000.00 4.6%
Aaron Williams BUF 26 $6,501,961 $143,280,000.00 4.5%
Rodney McLeod PHI 26 $7,000,000 $155,270,000.00 4.5%
T.J. Ward DEN 29 $5,625,000 $133,000,000.00 4.2%
Eric Weddle BAL 31 $6,500,000 $155,270,000.00 4.2%
Da’Norris Searcy TEN 27 $5,937,500 $143,280,000.00 4.1%
Antoine Bethea SF 31 $5,250,000 $133,000,000.00 3.9%
George Iloka CIN 26 $6,000,000 $155,270,000.00 3.9%
Marcus Gilchrist NYJ 27 $5,500,000 $143,280,000.00 3.8%
Glover Quin DET 30 $4,700,000 $123,000,000.00 3.8%
Mike Mitchell PIT 28 $5,000,000 $133,000,000.00 3.8%
Ron Parker KC 28 $5,000,000 $143,280,000.00 3.5%

When the cap is 25 percent larger than it was four years ago, then it’s meaningless to directly compare contract numbers across multiple years without some sort of correction.

So, Harrison is likely receiving more cash in hand than any other safety. But he did not sign the most burdensome contract in the NFL among his positional peers.

If you don’t think Smith is the top safety in the league, you at least believe he is surely one of the top five, so it’s hard to imagine this as anything but a good deal.

Beyond that, other contract details make the deal even more favorable than it originally looks. Smith’s guaranteed salary is only $15.86 million (with a further $14 million guaranteed for injury—explaining the $29 million number you see), which presumably means he has a roster guarantee kick in at the beginning of the 2018 league year, giving the Vikings full control over that contract and reducing the dead space in case of a cut.

That’s shocking and completely unexpected—one of the best examples of a team-friendly deal, and for an elite player. High contract numbers are often inflated beyond the guaranteed money, but having less than 30 percent of an elite player’s contract guaranteed is virtually unheard of.

For context, the average guaranteed percentage of other top safety contracts (“top” here meaning an average salary of 5.0% or more of first-year cap) is 49.7%—Harrison Smith’s total guaranteed would be $25.5 million if he and the Vikings agreed to a normal structure.

The Vikings not only got a bargain when they signed Smith, they are in full control.


Grading

It’s difficult to find multiple sets of player grades from across organizations because the only well-known group is at Pro Football Focus. The problem they have—and that nearly anyone would have—is that safeties are extremely difficult to grade off of broadcast footage.

Though PFF does do another pass after the All-22 comes out as a re-check, it’s difficult to determine from film if a quarterback declined a deep pass because a safety was playing an assignment well or if he did so because of the basic responses to coverage that each play has.

That said, they do properly penalize safeties who are exploited and give credit to safeties who find themselves near the ball; so quiet Cover-1 safeties who fulfill the basics of their assignment may not get the credit they deserve, but playmakers who don’t get burned will love the system.

That particular system finds a lot to like about Harrison Smith. They call him the league’s best safety and aren’t shy about it. Even when PFF moves from discussions about grades to more malleable opinions, he’s their favorite safety. His advantage in their system surely helps, though:

He is one of only two safeties in their system to post top-ten grades against both the run and the pass last year (the other being massively underrated Malcolm Jenkins) and is the only safety to post positive grades in all three categories (run defense, pass coverage, pass rushing) in both 2014 and 2015.

There aren’t many other grading resources, but the Football Engineer runs a crowd-sourced rating system that has Harrison ranked fourth out of all safeties, behind Eric Berry, Devin McCourty and Earl Thomas.


Other Advanced Statistics

Again, it’s difficult to fully evaluate safeties using advanced statistics for much the same reason it’s difficult to grade them. Advanced stats in general seem to be much worse at logging defensive play—though baseball is getting better with zone rating and basketball and hockey at least have indirect ways of measuring through adjusted plus-minus, defensive advanced metrics are still in their infancy.

ESPN did cobble together Harrison Smith’s “plus-minus” for the Vikings defense and the picture is pretty (for Smith, at least). When Smith was off the field last season, the Vikings’ defense gave up a completion rate of 73% (which would be the worst in the NFL by a significant margin), a yards-per-attempt of 8.2 (which would be the second-worst, tied with the Cleveland Browns) and an ESPN QBR of 78.7 (defensive QBR is difficult to find, but it’s equivalent to playing against Ben Roethlisberger every game).

When he’s on the field? A completion rate of 61% (ranking 11th), a yards-per-attempt of 6.9 (10th) and a QBR of 47.2 (playing against 2015 Colin Kaepernick every game).

I’ve recently become a much bigger fan of ESPN’s QBR metric, by the way. Aside from how well it does predicting wins in season, it also does a good job predicting future performance—better than any other statistic.

His ability to make plays at every level is fantastic and while high tackle totals (especially in the secondary) are not necessarily good, we’ll see below why this specific instance of high tackle totals represents a high-level player.

Pro Football Focus found that Smith allowed less than a passer rating of 68.0 in coverage in three of his last four seasons when targeted and last year allowed a passer rating of 43.3 in coverage. For a month and a half, he allowed a passer rating of 0.0:

While QBs typically post higher passer ratings against linebackers (the average against LBs last year was 99), it’s easier for quarterbacks to hit safeties for success than corners—and the best corner last year, Josh Norman, allowed a passer rating of 54.0. His passer-rating allowed of 43.3 was the second-best of all safeties last year.

In terms of adjusted yards, Harrison’s career value is quite high. Over the course of his career, offenses have netted about 92.5 adjusted yards against him, or only 23.1 adjusted yards of offense a year. His turnover production (12 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles) matches his ability to deter opposing passers into his coverage, with a pass headed into his direction about one in every ten pass coverage snaps.

Add to that the fact that 28% of all of his tackles were defensive “stops”—a loss for the offense—and his overall presence, at least statistically, overshadows all other safeties in the NFL. Smith doesn’t just rack up tackles, he racks up good tackles that come from stopping the run instead of allowing passers in coverage. As statistically the second-best pass-coverage safety and second-best run defense safety (behind Miami’s Reshad Jones) in advanced metrics, no other safeties come close to Smith’s overall impact.

With the incredible contract the Vikings signed Harrison Smith to, there’s certainly no other safety that matches his value.

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Harrison Smith doing Harrison Smith things. Photo Courtesy of Vikings.com

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