The Case to Cut/Keep Harrison Smith, The Vikings’ Elder Statesman in the Defensive Backfield

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

For twelve seasons, Harrison Smith has been one of the NFL’s preeminent defenders.

The hard-hitting safety was highly regarded coming out of Notre Dame. The NFL’s website suggested that “Smith [was] a smart, athletic defender who [would] push to start early” before arguing that a late 1st-round selection would be in order. The Vikings made the prediction a prophesy, trading up from 35th to snag the defender at 29th. Does the franchise legend get to continue his career in Minnesota or is a cut bound to arrive?

Harrison Smith: Cut or Keep?

The Case to Cut

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings free safety Xavier Woods (23) and safety Harrison Smith (22) break up a Detroit Lions pass during the second half at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The appeal with cutting Smith begins and ends with the financial savings.

The 35-year-old is moving into a season where he’s scheduled to carry a $19.2 million cap charge. Given the broader context of the Vikings’ roster, Smith’s price tag is too high. If there was no need for a new Justin Jefferson deal, a Kirk Cousins resolution, a Danielle Hunter extension, and then some funds to patch up a variety of holes elsewhere, then paying the defender would be fairly easy to justify.

After all, he’s still a strong defender.

The issue, of course, is that being a strong defender isn’t the same thing as being an elite defender. Smith is being paid elite money and his play has dropped below that threshold. Bring things around to just 2024 and Smith is scheduled to have the 5th-largest cap hit among safeties. One would assume that’s too high for the Vikings.

Even worse for Smith’s chance of sticking around is that the Vikings have built-in replacements. Josh Metellus is only 26 and is just getting into the opening season of his 2-year, $8 million extension. Camryn Bynum is only 25 and is moving into the final season of his rookie contract. Theo Jackson (25) seems like a good bet to return, Jay Ward (23) will be a sophomore, and some still have hope that Lewis Cine (24) can develop into a difference maker.

Again, the broader context is making Smith’s shot at retaining his roster spot more bleak. Cutting the veteran safety would mean Kwesi Adofo-Mensah gets to re-add close to $11.4 million into the budget.

The Case to Keep

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

Basically everyone surrounding the Vikings — the coaches, players, and fans — view Harrison Smith as a franchise legend. Collectively, they’re all right: Smith is a franchise legend.

He has spent more than a decade in Minnesota and has been a dominant defender; Smith’s elite versatility has been the gold-standard for all safeties to emulate. In 2023, Brian Flores used Smith in a much more compelling way by asking the safety to shift all over the field. Smith picked up 390 snaps in the box, 346 as a free safety, 185 along the defensive line, 151 in the slot, and 39 out wide.

Classic Hitman.

Even more impressive is that he did some pretty good work in both his pass coverage and as a pass rusher. The defender was blitzed 83 times, a stunning increase from the 9 blitzes while operating under Ed Donatell’s tutelage. He rewarded the Vikings with 3 sacks and 6 QB hits, an increase from the 0 sacks and 0 QB hits from 2022.

And while his interceptions shrunk down from 5 to 0, Smith’s completion percentage allowed actually improved, shifting from 79.5% to 65.4%. He didn’t allow a touchdown and each catch went for an average of 9.8 yards. Again, those represent improvements even if he didn’t generate as many turnovers by plucking passes out of the sky.

Someday, Smith should see his number retired by the Vikings. And while the franchise should prioritize keeping its legends in town, the case for keeping Smith goes beyond just being sentimental. Legitimately, Harrison Smith is still a good football player, so there’s a reasonable chance that Minnesota’s GM opts for an adjusted deal rather than an outright cut.

Editor’s Note: In “The Case to Cut/Keep” series, the aim is to neither prescribe nor predict what the Vikings should/will do. Rather, the aim is merely to give voice to some of the factors that will go into whether a player stays or goes. Previous entries: Dean Lowry.

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.