Around The League will profile the top 40 players we see Making the Leap in 2013. No. 4 on the list: Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith.
Why Smith is on the list
There wasn't a huge learning curve for Smith in the NFL. He started from Week 1 and looked like he belonged right away. The big plays followed shortly. He returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns, showing great moves with the ball in his hand. Unlike most defensive backs, he has great ball skills and hands.
He excelled at the two biggest parts of his job: preventing big plays, and setting a physical tone in the secondary. Smith's non-stop harassment of Calvin Johnson in Week 4 is when I really started to notice him.
Smith combines big hitting with great coverage skills, an ideal combination for a deep safety. As the season wore on, Smith played faster and with more confidence as he read plays. But he rarely was out of place even early in the season. ProFootballFocus' coverage statistics have some flaws, but they ranked Harrison sixth among all safeties in coverage. Fewer than half of passes thrown at Smith were completed. That skill and Smith's natural leadership set him apart.
"He has that aura about him where other guys kind of look to him because of his playmaking ability," coach Leslie Frazier told the Star Tribune in June.
Frazier called Smith an "assistant coach" on the field, which is an incredible compliment for a second-year player. It makes me think Smith is ready to take a big step leading a group that includes safety Jamarca Sanford, rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and corner Chris Cook.
Smith made some impressive tackles around the line of scrimmage and splashy tackles for loss, but game-film review showed that he was inconsistent supporting the run. He often was out of position because he over pursued plays, and sometimes missed tackles.
Smith plays with a lot of emotion, which showed up during a Week 5 ejection. Smith also was fined $21,000 for an unnecessary shot to the head in a preseason game, and fined $15,570 more for a horse-collar tackle on Robert Griffin III during the season. Smith plays on the edge, and ultimately it's worth trading a few fines a year to maintain his aggressive style.
The safety position only has grown in importance in recent years, but there is a vacuum of great young players at the position. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are nearing the end of their careers. Guys like Eric Berry (after a poor year), LaRon Landry and Donte Whitner all made the Pro Bowl last season despite uneven games.
Earl Thomas has a chance to be a great one, but there is plenty of room for another annual Pro Bowl performer to go with him to Hawaii every year. Smith has strides to make, but he has the flashy playmaking ability and sound coverage skills to become one of the best at his position.