When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Harrison Smith 29th overall in 2012, they landed an immediate starter out of the University of Notre Dame who took the field as a rookie Week 1 of the 2012 season, looked the part and hasn’t stopped improving in the four years since.
By virtue of the Vikings trading up to nab Smith in the first round, they had the luxury of extending his rookie contract out for a fifth year – an option they exercised last May. Even though Smith’s cap hit rose a lavish 232 percent from Year 4 to Year 5, the Vikings are still getting him at a bargain price of $5.278 million.
Smith enters 2016 with the 17th-highest cap hit amongst safeties, sandwiched between Marcus Gilchrist (NYJ) and George Iloka (CIN). It would be criminal if that ranking isn’t in the Top 3 next season. The 27-year-old Smith, certainly in the prime of his career, is due an extravagant contract extension in the coming months. There’s not a chance Minnesota lets him sniff free agency, but what will they have to pay Harry the Hitman?
The Vikings have recently been punctual in extending their foundational pieces before they get into the heat of the regular season. Blair Walsh got a new deal the opening week of training camp last fall. Kyle Rudolph was given a new contract in the opening week of camp in 2014. Brandon Fusco was extended the week before the team’s first game in 2014. Go back to Adrian Peterson in 2011 – he was also signed in early September. The same could be expected for Smith, though negotiations may be more treacherous in dealing with arguably the league’s best safety. “He’s a great player in this league,” said new safety Michael Griffin at his introductory press conference. “You would say he’s a young up and coming — I would not look at him like that. I’ve been watching his game for a long time now, and he’s one of the top, top three, four safeties in the league right now.”
The Vikings have been vigilant in not labeling Smith the “best” safety in the league. GM Rick Spielman has been careful to use the terminology “one of the better” safeties in the NFL. Let’s assume, though, that Griffin’s assessment of Smith being a top three or four safety is correct. That puts him in the same company financially as Earl Thomas (SEA), Eric Berry (KC), Devin McCourty (NE) and Jairus Byrd (NO).
Thomas was extended prior to his age 24 season for four years, $40 million with $25 million guaranteed. At the time, he’d started all 64 games in his four-year career and had collected 15 interceptions. He’d also helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl the year before his extension.
Berry has yet to receive a long-term extension in his career. After finishing his rookie deal with the Chiefs in inspirational fashion after overcoming lymphoma, Berry, 27, was given the franchise tag and awarded a one-year, $10.8 million deal. The Smith contract will likely help dictate what Berry makes in his next deal a year from now.
Now we get into the real doppelgangers for the Smith contract.
McCourty, at age 27, was a coveted free agent target in 2015 who ended up re-signing with the Patriots at five years, $47.5 million with an outstanding guaranteed figure of $28.5 million. He had played in over 96 percent of games prior to his extension and intercepted 17 passes. He also posted 42 passes defensed through his first three seasons – a great measurable that demonstrates his ball skills.
Jairus Byrd was taken in the second round by Buffalo in 2009, played out his rookie contract, took a franchise tag in 2013, then hit free agency and made bank with the Saints. His new contract awarded him up to $54 million over six years with the all-important guaranteed money at $26.3 million. Through his first five seasons with the Bills he’d played in 83 percent of his games and intercepted 21 passes. At age 27, he was also the same age as Smith is currently.
Now we come to Smith, who’s been relatively healthy throughout his rookie contract with the exception of turf toe in 2013. He played in 82 percent of games and intercepted 12 passes, scoring touchdowns on four of them.
There’s no doubt Smith will be angling for Byrd and McCourty money, considering their ages. While Smith’s interception numbers are lower, he also played one less year in the league at the time of his negotiations, and there’s plenty of evidence that Smith is a more active blitzer and surer tackler than his counterparts. The difference between Byrd, McCourty and Smith is that the former two hit the open market, where money gets thrown around more recklessly than it will be with Smith, who is negotiating in-house with the Vikings.
In their current salary cap situation, Minnesota shouldn’t have any significant financial restrictions with Smith, though he is the first in a wave of young players who will be expecting extensions in the coming years. Matt Kalil could hit free agency next March. Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd will be due an extension this time next year (assuming their fifth-year options are picked up). Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater will be up the year after that. But Smith could be the best of the bunch, and the Vikings aren’t about to start scrimping on a Top 3 safety who appears more-than-willing to return to Minnesota.
Expect around a five-year, $45 million extension for Smith with about $27 million guaranteed. That would put him between McCourty and Byrd for guaranteed dollars and keep him in Minnesota through his prime. “He’s a guy that if I’m starting a team, he’s my first pick,” said Adrian Peterson last year. “So I got to take my hat off to him. He’s the ultimate competitor, and he’s a great talent.”
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