Vikings

What Harrison Smith Needs to Do to Make the Hall of Fame

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its class of 2021 on the eve of the Super Bowl, as is customary, and to the dismay of many in these parts, Jared Allen did not make it in on his first year of eligibility. Fear not: As I detailed a week ago, Allen will get there in due time. He has the numbers.

Despite the disappointment for Vikings fans hoping Allen would make it in Year 1, the Hall of Fame class of 2021 might have contained some good news for a current Vikings great with aspirations of one day being enshrined in Canton: Harrison Smith.

It seems the floodgates have opened for safeties making the Hall of Fame in recent years, and the election of John Lynch in this year’s class should be of interest to those hoping to see Smith don a gold jacket someday. Statistically speaking, Lynch’s 26 career interceptions and zero touchdowns don’t quite measure up to the 28 interceptions and four career touchdowns Smith has posted thus far in his stellar career. Similarly, in 2020 Steve Atwater made the Hall with 24 career interceptions and one touchdown, as did Cliff Harris with 29 interceptions and one touchdown.

On the basis of these two counting stats, a case can be made for Smith. He measures up.

But that can’t be the entire Hall of Fame case when it comes to safeties or else there would be many more in the Hall. It’s not all about getting 25-plus interceptions and scoring the occasional touchdown. It’s a nice start to a foundation for a Hall of Fame career, but that foundation alone is too sandy.

So, while the enshrinement of safeties like Lynch, Atwater, and Harris might bode well in one way for Smith’s Hall odds, it’s not enough to get him there. It’s not like Lynch, Atwater, and Harris lowered the Hall of Fame bar to the extent that Harold Baines might have for the Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago. A deeper look at something beyond interceptions reveals where Smith comes up short and what he needs to add to his resumé.

THE PROFILE OF A HALL OF FAME SAFETY

As you may recall, there was no Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2020 due to COVID-19. Thus, the 2020 and 2021 classes are tentatively scheduled to share the stage this summer (knock on wood). That’s a whopping 21 new inductees, and, incredibly, six will be safeties: The aforementioned trio of Lynch, Atwater, and Harris along with Troy Polamalu, Bobby Dillon, and Donnie Shell.

To put the sudden onslaught of safeties in perspective, the Hall of Fame’s first class was enshrined in 1963. From 1963 through 2019, only 14 safeties got the call to the Hall. Six more brings the total to 20 Hall of Fame safeties.

Before going any further, it should be noted that the Hall of Fame labels players primarily as defensive backs rather than safeties or cornerbacks. Moreover, many of the defensive backs in the Hall of Fame spent time at both corner and safety. As such, some digging was required to determine just how many of the 37 defensive backs in the Hall could legitimately be considered safeties.

I count 20. Guys like Ronnie Lott and Mel Renfro spent some time at cornerback but the bulk of their careers as safeties. They are two of the 20. Others, such as Rod Woodson and Charles Woodson (class of 2021), spent a little time at safety at the end of their careers that were otherwise spent playing cornerback. They’re among the 17 Hall cornerbacks by my count.

Among the 20 safeties in the Hall of Fame, 17 have at least 30 interceptions and 14 of them have at least 40 picks. As mentioned previously, that’s just one stat though. A few other factors stand out on the resumé of a Hall of Fame safety.

  • 14 of the 20 HOF safeties have won a Super Bowl (or NFL Championship prior to the Super Bowl era)
  • Of the six without a Super Bowl ring, two played their careers before the Super Bowl era
  • 12 of the 20 HOF safeties have made an NFL All-Decade Team
  • And 19 of the 20 HOF safeties were named First-Team All-Pro multiple times

So, you see, Lynch (two First-Team All-Pros and one Super Bowl title), Atwater (two First-Team All-Pros and two Super Bowl titles) and Harris (three First-Team All-Pros, two Super Bowl titles, and a member of the NFL’s All-1970s Team) have more than just twentysomething interceptions on their list of accomplishments. And the only HOF safety with just one First-Team All-Pro honor, Mel Renfro, made 10 Pro Bowls (Smith has five) and also won two Super Bowls.

As for the argument that Super Bowl rings shouldn’t matter for an individual honor like the Hall of Fame – sorry, but that’s just the way it seems to be. It’s not a coincidence that so many in the Hall have rings, nor is it a coincidence that many who otherwise would have been enshrined sooner had to wait in part due to a lack of championships. Vikings Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause is the all-time NFL leader in interceptions with 81, but he waited 19 years to get his gold jacket because he was part of four teams that lost a Super Bowl and was viewed as something of a one-dimensional player. Though, in fairness, he was more prolific in his “one dimension” of picking off passes than anyone who ever played the game. Oh, and his Vikings won the final NFL Championship in 1969 before losing the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs.

THE CASE AGAINST SMITH

Bad news, Vikings fans: Despite his interceptions and fancy touchdown total, Smith isn’t a Hall of Famer. Not yet. His current trajectory has him finishing short of the necessary benchmarks to reach the Hall, although he’ll surely be in the Vikings’ Ring of Honor. So, he’s got that going for him… which is nice.

The profile of a Hall of Fame safety, as detailed above, leaves Smith out by several measures: not enough First-Team All-Pros (Smith has one), no All-Decade Team honors, and, obviously, no Super Bowl rings. In fact, there are several safeties not in the Hall of Fame who warrant consideration before Smith. That list includes, but is not limited to the following non-HOFers:

LeRoy Butler

  • 4x First-Team All-Pro
  • Member of the NFL All-1990s Team
  • 1x Super Bowl champion
  • 38 interceptions

Deron Cherry

  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • Member of the NFL All-1980s Team
  • 50 interceptions

Jimmy Patton

  • 5x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x NFL Champion
  • 52 interceptions

Eugene Robinson

  • 1x Super Bowl champion
  • 57 interceptions

Jake Scott

  • 2x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x Super Bowl champion
  • 49 interceptions

Oh, and one more: former Vikings great Joey Browner – he of “the strongest hands in the NFL” — should be in line for Hall of Fame consideration before Smith.

Joey Browner

  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • Member of the NFL All-1980s Team
  • 37 interceptions

Then again, Smith’s career isn’t over, so…

THE CASE FOR SMITH

He still has time. That’s the big thing. Harrison Smith isn’t done playing football. He just turned 32 on Feb. 2 and is coming off yet another really good season – one in which he added five interceptions to his total (his most since picking off five in 2017).

Part of the case to be made for players earning a place in the Hall of Fame is being among the elite at their position when compared to their contemporaries. That’s why Smith being left off the NFL’s All-2010 Team stung so much. These are the players he’s supposedly being measured against, and the voters felt he fell short. However, there’s a good chance that Smith can better most of the career numbers of the four safeties named to the All-2010s team ahead of him.

Earl Thomas

  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Super Bowl champion
  • 30 interceptions

Eric Berry

  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 14 interceptions

Eric Weddle

  • 2x First-Team All-Pro
  • 29 interceptions

Tyrann Mathieu

  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Super Bowl champion
  • 23 interceptions

Of those four players, only Mathieu is still active. The Honey Badger and Earl Thomas are the only two with a Super Bowl ring. Smith has more interceptions than Mathieu, twice as many as Berry, and should surpass Weddle and Thomas in 2021. A lot of folks likely view Thomas and Mathieu as Hall of Famers, though Thomas’ domestic issues and reports of him fighting with teammates likely won’t help his cause.

Now for some whataboutism: What about Smith’s intangibles? He’s known for being a hard hitter. He’s “The Hit Man” after all. He’s also known as a coach on the field – Mike Zimmer’s “fixer” who does all the little things you don’t find in the box score. All of this is true, but that’s the thing: If you can’t find it in the box score, voters have a hard time comparing and contrasting it with other players.

Smith excels in numerous ways that can’t be quantified, in ways that have to be seen. Those who cover the NFL have access to all of Smith’s games in this day and age, but let’s be honest: Teams on the coasts or in bigger markets get more exposure, as do teams that play in the Super Bowl. Besides, Smith isn’t the only safety who has done all those unquantifiable things. Most in the Hall of Fame possess similar traits.

So what does Smith need to do in order to get in the Hall of Fame conversation?

Well, winning a Super Bowl would be nice. However, the odds seem to be stacked against the Vikings winning one, like, ever. And Smith probably only has a handful of seasons left. Let’s assume he won’t win a ring. Let’s also safely assume he won’t be part of the NFL’s All-2020s Team.

That pretty much leaves interceptions and All-Pro teams if we’re using the current Hall of Fame safeties as a guide. Let’s assume Smith plays two to four more seasons. Heck, let’s say four. Averaging four interceptions a season would put him at 44 for his career. Tack on another touchdown along the way and his counting stats would be looking very worthy. Get another First-Team All-Pro and it would fulfill another Hall of Fame “requirement” for him.

Is that much doable? Certainly.

Stack up 40-ish interceptions and at least two All-Pro honors up against those in the Hall – especially those safeties who made the Hall the past two classes – and suddenly Smith’s Hall of Fame case has some oxygen. Or at least it would be as good as that of some of the safeties listed above (Browner, Cherry, Butler, et al) who haven’t been enshrined yet either.

Now, if he could only win a Super Bowl….

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