The Vikings haven't had an instinctive playmaker at safety since Darren Sharper left after the 2008 season. General Manager Rick Spielman thinks that's about to change.
Sending his second-round draft pick (35th overall) and one of his four fourth-rounders (95th overall) to Baltimore, Spielman filled a huge need by jumping back into the first round to select Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith with the 29th overall pick.
Spielman praised Smith as a big, fast, versatile athlete who can play in the box as a strong safety or deep in coverage as the free safety. He lauded the two-time Fighting Irish captain's passion for the game, his seven interceptions as a junior and his performances in big games. Then he said the p-word (playmaker), which should make Vikings fans happy considering the struggles they've witnessed at the position the past two years.
"He's a very smart football player, very smart in his angles," Spielman said. "He's a big safety [6-2, 213] that plays fast. But I also know how smart he is in coverage ... the anticipation to watch the quarterback and get a jump on the ball as it's coming out. He has a lot of those instincts and that ability to make plays."
Because of how thin the position is, Smith should become a starter by the season opener. But he'll have to prove himself. After all, the last time the Vikings traded up to pick a safety they thought would come in and start, they ended up with Tyrell Johnson, a second-round pick in 2008. He flopped and left for Miami via free agency after last season.
Spielman said the Vikings believe they have a better sense of Smith's potential because the team's coaching staff got to know him "inside and out" while coaching him in the Senior Bowl.
Smith had no interceptions as a senior. Part of the reason was more man coverage assignments on tight ends, but he admitted, "I dropped some balls I should have caught."
Smith wasn't one of the 30 players the Vikings brought in for a visit before the draft. Most likely, they didn't want to tip anybody off to their strong interest in him.
When the Vikings acquired three extra picks from Cleveland to move down one spot to No. 4 before the draft, Spielman knew he had the ammo to move back into the first round to grab Smith. Spielman started calling teams when the draft reached the 20th pick.
Until picking Smith, the Vikings had only three safeties on the roster. And one of them, Eric Frampton, is strictly a special teams player.
"We got to know each other [at the Senior Bowl], and at the end of the day, I think they think I'm a good fit for them," Smith said. "And I 100 percent agree with them."