The Vikings’ Decision that Sparked “Joy” in the Defensive Coordinator

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
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More than a few people thought that cutting Harrison Smith was a foregone conclusion.

After all, we’re talking about someone who just finished off his twelfth season in the NFL and who had a cap hit flirting with $20 million. The Vikings’ decision seemed clear. Instead, The Hitman stayed, adjusting his deal to bring the 2024 charge down to a much more manageable $7,315,882. The two sides found a middle ground that worked, so the relationship will continue.

More than a few people were thrilled to see that Harrison Smith hadn’t been cut. Maybe the happiest person, though, wasn’t a fan. Instead, it was the team’s well-respected defensive coordinator.

Brian Flores was asked to share his reaction to the news of Smith’s return and the DC brought one word to the fore: “Joy.”

The Vikings’ Decision to Retain Harrison Smith Sparked Joy in Flores

A few weeks ago, Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf took some time to chat with Tom Pelissero and Steve Wyche of The NFL Network. Wilf had high praise for the team’s elder statesman in the defensive backfield.

“Entering his thirteenth season now,” Wilf says, “I mean, just an incredible player. A great leader. And we couldn’t be happier for him and his family that he’s back with us this coming year.” Not too long afterwards, Wilf describes Smith as “one of the greatest picks in Vikings history.”

Back in 2012, Minnesota climbed the board to snag the talented safety coming out of Notre Dame. Getting to 29th involved sending the 35th and 98th over to Baltimore. Looking back, it was a small price to pay.

Vikings Owner Mark Wilf
Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings president and owner Mark Wilf before the NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Not to be outdone, Flores tossed some high praise over to Smith in the Tuesday press conference.

Part of what makes the veteran safety so impressive is his leadership: “He’s been a lot of fun to coach. A lot of fun to be around. His leadership, and I know people talk about his leadership all the time, but for me he’s somebody that we’re having conversations about the game plan, matchups, things of that nature. Personally, he’s somebody that I was ecstatic that he was back.”

Flores then describes that his feeling is one of “pure joy that he’s back.”

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis (13) makes a catch against Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) during second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

And while the praise wasn’t in short supply, Flores thinks Smith can keep taking steps forward with his game.

“A lot of things he can improve on and get better,” Flores went on to explain.

In 2022, there was a feeling that Harrison Smith wasn’t being used properly. The defender who distinguishes himself through his elite versatility was asked to sit in a deep zone with great regularity (519 snaps as a free safety, his highest since 2014). And while that led to a resurgence in interceptions — tying a career high with 5 — his overall aggression was a bit muted.

Dec 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) celebrates a sack during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mercifully, Smith got shuffled all over the field for the Vikings’ defense in 2023.

To be sure, Smith snagged a pile of snaps as a free safety — 346 — but he got moved into other spots with greater frequency. His snaps at corner jumped from 10 to 39, his snaps in the slot jumped from 118 to 151, his snaps in the box jumped from 227 to 390, and his snaps along the defensive line jumped from 38 to 185. Some of the increase comes from seeing his overall playing time ascend since he didn’t miss any games, but the Flores effect was a major driving force behind the greater diversity in responsibilities.

And then there were the blitzes. A year after only getting sent 9 times, Smith got blitzed a stunning 83 times. Gotta think that makes someone who is nicknamed The Hitman happy.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell greets safety Harrison Smith (22) before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If the Vikings pull off a winning season in 2024, the defense will probably be the main culprit. Finding a way to keep climbing, pushing from pretty good to great, will be more important than ever since the QB spot is working through a transitional phase.

Look for Harrison Smith, 35, to keep inspiring joy in coach and fan alike as the Vikings try to get their defense back to elite.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, PFF, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.