Vikings Territory asked, and the readers spoke; in this series of articles, the team will announce the winners of our fan-voted awards, from the Minnesota Vikings’ MVP of 2015 to the Rookie of the Year. Today, a look at the Defensive Player of the Year as voted by you, the fans.
Harrison Smith, FS — Minnesota Vikings
First a trip to the 2016 Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and now, a title as the Vikings Territory Defensive Player of the Year. Though not as grand, the award is important because it comes from the fans of the Minnesota Vikings. Since he was drafted in 2012, Vikings fans have known that Harrison Smith would be an impact player in Minnesota. The award, just like his Pro Bowl invitation, is long overdue, but no less deserved.
He jetted closer to stardom in 2014, the best statistical season of his four-year career. It was Smith’s five interceptions and three sacks that earned him a first-team nod on Pro Football Focus’s All-NFL team, and one could argue he improved his play in 2015. Despite missing nearly four games this year, Smith was a force against the pass and run in Mike Zimmer’s aggressive scheme. “I’m fortunate enough to be in a system where [coach Mike Zimmer] wants us to do all of those things,” he said, per Matt Vensel. “I’m just lucky to be here and happy to be here because of that.”
It’s Smith’s versatility that makes him such an important player for the Vikings. Uncomfortably thin at the position in 2015, Minnesota relied on Smith’s elasticity to play the role of strong or free safety at times. A player like Antone Exum, for example, is a traditional strong safety — bulkier, stout against the run, but lacking the speed to cover wide receivers down the field. Smith, on the other hand, epitomizes the trend toward safeties who can not only thrive as in-the-box defenders, but cover man-to-man or as the deep safety. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained the phenomenon to ESPN in 2011:
Smith has learned to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Pro Football Focus described him as a player who can “make plays wherever you line him up.” Darren Woodson, a former safety who played under Mike Zimmer in Dallas, believes that’s what makes Smith so special. “They’re asking Harrison to walk down into the box, create the eight-man front, fill the backside C gap, get to the front side on runs that are away from him, cover the tight end, blitz on the outside,” he said in an interview with Vensel.
In just 13 full games, Smith finished the season with 66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one interception, and one return touchdown. It was those stats that earned Smith the fan-voted award from VT readers. He earned 35.53 percent (108 votes) of the vote, which was almost seven percent better than runner-up Linval Joseph. Everyone Griffen came in third with 62 votes, while Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Xavier Rhodes rounded out the poll.