Harrison Smith has been one of the best safeties in the NFL over the past several years, but hasn’t been able to earn All-Pro honors to be recognized as one of the top two safeties in the NFL — from the Associated Press, anyway. Pro Football Focus put him on their All-Pro teams in 2014 and 2015.
He may have begun the process to reverse this trend last Sunday with his stellar performance against the Green Bay Packers. With at least one interception and one sack, he notched an accomplishment shared only by Jordan Poyer among safeties this year.
Smith hasn’t been completely ignored in the voting process; he earned seven All-Pro votes — of an available 50 — in 2014, eight votes in 2015 and three in 2016. In 2015 and 2016, he also earned Pro Bowl nods; first as an alternate and later as a first-team member.
A lot of this has to do with peculiarities of the voting system that penalizes “second-best” safeties in favor of biased team-specific voting, positional disagreements and protest votes.
It also robs Smith of the value of long-term dominance. He could be the best safety over that period of time but not receive recognition because of the nature of awards systems — focusing on single seasons instead of sustained performance.
Between 2013 and 2016, no safety aside from Smith has been a top-10 producer in yards allowed per snap in coverage and run stops per snap as a run defender. Add in the fact that Smith also ranks second in sacks from a safety over that period of time and a clear conclusion emerges: he has been the most statistically dominant safety over the past four years.
Statistical production doesn’t always signal talent, but in this case it likely does. While most traditional metrics fail in evaluating defensive backs — interception totals don’t account for gambling liabilities and tackle totals can just as often mean bad coverage as good run defense — statistics like yards allowed in coverage and run “stops” exclusively in the running game do a much better job accounting for total play.
Very often, those statistics can be harmed by having excellent teammates, but Smith shines despite Pro Bowl quality linebackers, defensive linemen and secondary players around him. Last year, Xavier Rhodes led the league in passer rating when targeted and bookend Terence Newman led the league in yards allowed per snap in coverage.
Linval Joseph was third among nose tackles in run stop rate, and Eric Kendricks was ninth among linebackers. Despite the fact that offenses had every reason in the world to throw at him instead of his teammates, he excelled in coverage. And even though his fellow Vikings soaked up tackle totals and stops in the run game, he still produced tackles at or near the line of scrimmage.
He did all that while putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and creating sacks better than almost any other safety.
We saw that put on emphatic display once more in the game this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. One of only nine players this year to have both a sack and an interception in the same game, Smith put an exclamation point on the case he’s making for All-Pro consideration.
There are a number of versatile safeties in the NFL, but none as talented as Smith. There are only 20 safeties this year who have had 10 pass-rushing snaps, 100 coverage snaps and 100 snaps against the run.
Of those safeties, Smith ranks first in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap, first in pass rush pressure rate, second in missed-tackle rate and seventh in run stop rate.
It would be difficult to beat Smith outright by specialists, anyway. He ranks first of every safety in the NFL in adjusted yards allowed per snap in coverage — a measure that gives bonuses and penalties for touchdowns, first downs and interceptions. That includes free safety specialists who have honed their coverage skills as well as box safeties with limited assignment responsibility.
Not only that, he ranks first of every pass-rushing safety in sack production this year, as well as pressure production per snap. With some safeties specializing in rushing the passer from the box even more often than Smith does — like Landon Collins, Jamal Adams and Reshad Jones — his ability to beat them at their specialty is impressive.
He ranks third overall in missed tackle rate, having only missed one tackle this year on a greater number of tackle attempts than any other safety with one missed tackle. Only Josh Jones and Tashaun Gipson have missed zero tackles.
The only area that Smith fell somewhat behind in this year was stop rate, where he ranks 15th of 47 safeties. When lined up specifically in the box, he has ranked tenth this year.
Smith not only beats out versatile safeties in the different responsibilities tasked of them, but he beats out specialists at their narrow role.
This is precisely why Pro Football Focus has been such a big fan of Smith’s play; he’s their top-rated safety this year and has had an 85 ranking in each of the last four years. He is the only safety to do that.
One can look at Smith’s last four years and compare it to the top safeties from this year as well as the peak years of All-Pro selections since 2014.
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Eric Weddle, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Berry, Reggie Nelson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Devin McCourty benefited from using their four-best consecutive years while all the others used their four most recent years.
Aside from Weddle’s 2011-2014 run, Smith blows all the other competition out of the water.
Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus explained why:
[Smith is] one of the league’s most complete safeties in a time where the position of safety has become ever more split into strong and free safeties. Smith has the range to play free and the power and physicality to play strong, with the instincts and smarts to be in the right spot at the right time in either place. [He] gives the Vikings defense a lot of schematic flexibility from a coverage standpoint. Right now, he’s the game’s best safety and a huge player for that defense.
Hopefully, those highlight plays will stick in the voters’ minds when they register their top safeties. It helps that his last game on national television was last week, where he sealed the game off with an interception against Mitchell Trubisky.
While this Packers game wasn’t on Monday night, there was a larger national audience for it than a typical noon game.
Smith is the best safety in the NFL. He might finally start getting recognition for it.