In the second year of Mike Zimmer’s stint as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, safety Harrison Smith was elected to the Pro Bowl. The year was 2015, Teddy Bridgewater was the team’s undisputed starting quarterback, Minnesota won the NFC North, Blair Walsh canceled a playoff run, and Smith earned the first of five consecutive Pro Bowl nods.
Smith was not chosen for the Pro Bowl phantasm game in 2020. His five-season streak ceased. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pro Bowl will not be physically played. Why is that significant? Because no alternates will be tapped to replace Super Bowl-bound personnel — the rosters are cemented. Normally, a handful of players playing February football are swapped with players from the outside looking in during the first-ballot selection process. This season, the game will not actually happen and thus no replacement players are necessary.
That’s a wrap for Smith’s streak. In the grand scheme of wins and losses, Pro Bowl honors are not paramount. Yet, taglines lines such as “six straight Pro Bowls” are delicious for Hall of Fame candidacy. Smith may resume his Pro Bowl recognition in 2021, or this may be a bookend. He will be 32 years old at the start of February. On his Hall of Fame aspirations, his eventual consideration is a true toss-up. If his career was spent in New England or Seattle, Smith would be close to a lock as he would presumably own a Super Bowl ring. Of course with the Vikings, he does not have one of those yet. Smith’s individual statistics are more than worthy of Hall of Fame credentialing, but the powers that be generally prefer finger hardware for Canton enshrinement when safeties are on the docket.
Despite the temporary Pro Bowl blacklist, Smith was terrific in 2020 and did not take an age-related dip in production.
4th in NFL for INTs
The pandemic season for the Vikings was the first in seven years that the defense was ostensibly bad. On points-allowed efficiency, Minnesota plummeted from fifth-best in the league during 2019 to 29th-best in 2020 – a cool 24-spot belly-flop.
Nevertheless, Minnesota did a reasonable effort forcing turnovers. All told, the Vikings notched 22 takeaways — 10th-most in the NFL. In some aspects, their acumen for creating turnovers was the tactic that saved the franchise from historic ineptitude.
Smith caused five of the turnovers. As a standalone stat, five interceptions may sound meager. But compared to all other NFL peers, Smith’s five picks were the fourth-most in the industry. Only Xavien Howard, J.C. Jackson, and Tyrann Mathieu tallied more interceptions.
Every season since 2017 – Smith has snagged at least three interceptions. There was no drop-off in 2020. In fact, Smith improved in this department.
13th-Best Safety per PFF
This brief analysis is not a dissertation that asserts Smith was an egregious Pro Bowl snub. While it would have been lawful that he earned the accolade for a sixth straight season, the safeties that were elected were apt choices. Budda Baker, Quandre Diggs, and Jamal Adams made the cut instead of Smith, although Adams’s style is closer to a linebacker than a true-blue safety. Too, Quandre Diggs’ Pro Football Focus grade was 64.2 – not generally interpreted as upper-echelon. Diggs also tabulated five interceptions, so that splashy figure must have been more scintillating than Smith’s five picks. It is worth mentioning, as well, that Diggs is a fantastic run defender. But so is Smith.
In the end, PFF ranked Smith as the NFL’s 13th-best safety with a 74.3 score. That was one point lower than Budda Baker and about 10 points superior to both Diggs and Adams.
One Constant Bright Spot on a Bad Defense
Smith was one of four defensive Vikings to start all 16 games in 2020. Along with Anthony Harris, Jaleel Johnson, Shamar Stephen, Smith went the distance. So did Jeff Gladney and Eric Wilson, but they technically totaled 15 starts apiece.
The Vikings secondary was routinely under siege as the pass rush was next to nonexistent. Rookie cornerbacks – Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney – experience a rude awakening to NFL life because opposing passers had time to knit mittens in the pocket. Players like Eric Kendricks and Smith kept the season afloat defensively while the offense was the lifeline to wins. And when Kendricks was injured in pregame warm-ups versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smith became the last man standing. It was not enough. Minnesota eked out a win against Jacksonville but lost the next three games – gutting any visions of playoff grandeur.
Smith’s Pro Bowl streak conceivably would have lived on had the Pro Bowl game taken place this season per usual. His resume as an alternate was stuffed with goodies. Like many other dealings, though, it is no such luck because of a worldwide pandemic.