EAGAN — When the Alliance of American Football folded last April under financial strain, the Minnesota Vikings were aggressive in securing some of the league’s best talent.
Among the acquisitions was San Antonio Commanders safety Derron Smith, who is firmly in the running to make the Vikings’ 53-man roster. According to Monday’s unofficial depth chart, the Vikings label Smith as a second-team safety, where he’s been working with Jayron Kearse in recent practices.
“It gave me another opportunity,” Smith said of the start-up league. “It gave a lot of guys an opportunity. It sucks how it ended, but they completed the job that it was meant to do. It gave guys opportunities to get film out, to keep playing, to put a little bit of money in your pocket, to get another opportunity.”
The Vikings also brought in defensive back Jordan Martin, linebacker Greer Martini, defensive end Karter Schult and cornerback Duke Thomas from the now-defunct AAF. Martin was released from the team during the spring, but the other four remain. What separates Smith, though, is his previous NFL experience.
A sixth-round pick out of Fresno State, Smith spent two-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2015-17 as he logged 128 defensive snaps. Though he was primarily a special teams player, Smith saw playing time as a rookie in the Bengals’ Wild Card playoff game against Pittsburgh. He was on the field defensively during the infamous drive where teammates Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones committed personal fouls in the final minute to set the Steelers up for a game-winning field goal.
More importantly, the Bengals in 2015 were still running the system that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer instituted as their defensive coordinator from 2008-13 — the same system he brought to Minnesota. Hearing his teammates talk about Zimmer’s scheme and attention to detail has made Smith’s acclimation to Minnesota much smoother.
“There’s a few things that we run here that we didn’t run in Cincinnati,” Smith said, “but for the most part it’s almost the exact same.”
Smith was cut by the Bengals in November of 2017 and quickly picked up by the nearby Cleveland Browns. His career appeared to be fizzling, however, when he was waived by Cleveland on roster cutdown day in 2018.
Then the AAF came calling and gave Smith another shot.
Smith posted the highest defensive grade in the truncated AAF season, per Pro Football Focus, and was named the league’s Player of the Year by the analytics website thanks in part to his three interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Smith’s coach in San Antonio, Mike Riley, previously coached J.D. Spielman — the son of Vikings GM Rick Spielman — when he was with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. That warm relationship opened the door for the Vikings to get the intel they needed on Smith.
“I had a pretty good source down there,” Spielman said during the spring. “So we had a lot of contacts in there, and those guys kind of helped us identify some guys, as well, and had great communication.”
The Vikings have an opening at Smith’s position after cutting longtime safety Andrew Sendejo, who’d been with the team since 2011. While Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are holding down the starting spots, Smith is vying for a backup job with fourth-year vet Jayron Kearse and rookie Marcus Epps. The Vikings have typically kept four safeties but did retain five in 2018 after acquiring another former Bengal George Iloka.
After rotating on and off the second team with Epps in the spring, Smith has gotten an extended run with the 2s during training camp. He says his previous stint in the NFL taught him a lesson that he’s applying to his time with the Vikings.
“You can be productive, you can do all types of things, you can be drafted, undrafted, it don’t matter,” he said, “you never know when your last day might be so you’ve got to enjoy it.”