Harrison Smith was a little surprised to hear that he was one of the oldest safeties in the NFL. The 33-year-old played 15 games last year and has made the Pro Bowl in six of the past seven seasons. Rick Spielman signed him to a four-year, $64 million contract before the Minnesota Vikings fired the former GM in the offseason. He says he still feels good and sometimes forgets he’s older than 30.
“Is that true?” Smith asked a reporter who was wondering what it was like to be the oldest safety in the league. “What about Devin McCourty? [34 years old.] I’m reaching; I don’t know, I get the gist of the question. I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it, obviously. Still feel pretty good, still like to play football and learn new stuff.”
Smith has a potential out after this year, but the Vikings would incur over $11 million in dead cap. Plus, they appear committed to him long-term. Kevin O’Connell name-dropped Smith in his introductory press conference, and the coaching staff has been complimentary of the 10-year veteran’s game. Why wouldn’t they be? Smith is still a productive player and is willing to learn Ed Donatell’s scheme.
“Learning a lot from Ed and his staff on the defensive side and a lot from KO just from general football philosophy, how offenses work, and how they change,” Smith said, expanding on his previous thought. “That stuff has always intrigued me, and playing is playing. Once you’re out there, as long as you know what you’re doing to some degree, you can still let it loose, go have fun, and play football.”
Old-school to his core, Smith misses the days of hard-hitting football where he could light up a receiver going over the middle. The NFL has cracked down on head-to-head hits to reduce concussions and has legislated to protect defenseless receivers. The intent of the rules is correct. But they are often left up to the interpretation of the refs and the league. Smith has been penalized and fined multiple times because of his physical play.
On Tuesday, a different reporter asked Smith what’s changed about his game as he’s gotten older. It was ostensibly about a decline in certain aspects of his play, but Smith took it in a different direction.
“The general rules of football have changed in a lot of ways,” he responded.
Like depending on how far you want to go back in my playing career, I guess. I was tackling a lot different when I was 10 years old than how I try to tackle now. Pretty much every tackle I made in high school was a horse-collar tackle. So that’s out.
Yeah, just got to be cognizant of trying to fit into the game as it is now, and it changes every year, subtly in some instances and not so subtly in others. But it’s important to not – as a younger player, as a rookie, I was a little more hard-headed. I always wanted to go for big hits. If you can still get big hits, that’s great, but you have to try to do it in the rules of the game. Secure tackles are important. It’s not always about some highlight hit, it’s about what’s going to get us the win.
The ball, locating the ball, whether it’s in the air or on a ball carrier after a catch, things like that. Those things have become more – like, as a little bit of the physicality has gone away, awareness of the ball has come into play just in general across the NFL. Which is good, and it’s precise. So just working on those things.
The rule changes appear to be the biggest challenge for Smith. However, Minnesota’s defense is undergoing a massive change. O’Connell hired Donatell as his defensive coordinator, and he’s shifting the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Like veterans Patrick Peterson and Anthony Barr, Smith supported Mike Zimmer throughout a trying season last year. He thrived in Zimmer’s complicated, detail-oriented defense.
But Smith has been through coaching changes before. Leslie Frazier was the Vikings’ head coach when they drafted him in 2012. While he’ll be going from two defensive coaches to a former offensive coordinator in O’Connell, he says he jibes with Donatell and has picked up the new defense.
“I don’t want to downplay it, but I think I’ve been around long enough to know some general rules of football,” Smith says. “There’s an overlap and things like that. Mostly alignment stuff, verbiage stuff, which you might not think is a big deal, but it’s about being comfortable with what you’re doing before you’re doing it.
“Safety, you like to know what’s your next move before somebody goes in motion or shifts. If you can kind of get all that stuff down pretty reasonably, it allows you to play faster and calmer.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that a veteran with a high football IQ like Smith is picking up a new defense. But he’s doing it in a completely different environment. Smith seemed to have a kindred spirit in Zimmer, a hard-nosed, defensive coach. In comes O’Connell, who talks about collaborating with players. He wants them to know the “why” behind what he and his staff are doing.
After the Vikings fired Zimmer, Eric Kendricks and Brian O’Neill were outspoken about the need for a culture change. Ben Leber recently confirmed that Zimmer was never on board with Kirk Cousins. The tension in their relationship appeared to manifest after a close win over the Detroit Lions last October. But Peterson and Smith would offer unsolicited support for Zimmer throughout the season. However, Smith is on board with O’Connell and Donatell’s new-age approach.
“That’s something I really appreciate as a player because it’s now always like that,” he says. “When you learn the whys, it gives you a lot of confidence in what you’re doing, and you know the emphasis of what you can’t give up and what we’re trying to do kind of force or take away or whatever. I think that kind of gives you a little more knowledge of how coaches attack.”
Smith also leans on other veterans for advice. Minnesota’s younger players will benefit from understanding the “whys,” but they have a steeper learning curve than he does. One of his biggest challenges is always the grey areas – not only in the rules but in the field’s dimensions. Donatell can offer instruction until he’s blue in the face, but offensive coordinators design their offenses to force defensive players to make difficult decisions.
“That’s something that every now and then happens on the fly, and you got to figure it out,” says Smith. “And there are other things that you think, ‘What could cause us problems here?’ Or, ‘This has happened to me in the past.’ A lot of safeties I’ve played with over the years, we’ll watch film, and we’ll test each other. ‘If we’re in this and this happens.’ Sometimes there’s a gray area.
“Many of those things you can talk about, and it helps because it’s not always going to be, ‘When this happens, you do this.’ That’s not how the offensive coaches are scheming it up. That’s some stuff that’s kind of fun throughout the game too.”
The grey areas would have challenged Smith regardless of whether Zimmer was coaching him or not. He’d still be the wily veteran moving around the defense, trying to stifle whatever the opponent was trying to do. Smith isn’t looking back, though. He has embraced the new regime and believes the Vikings’ defense can be stout again.
“I don’t think [it’s] ‘get back to,'” he says. “We got some new things we’re doing, a bunch of new faces. It’s more about where we’re going, where we can go. [It’s] not thinking about where we’ve been and trying to get back there. It’s about being fresh and maximizing the guys we got now. We have the guys we need. It’s just up to us to make it happen.”
In short, he’s bought in. Things are different at training camp this year, but some things about defense never change. Smith is a 33-year-old veteran, but he’s willing to embrace a changing game.