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Breaking news and year-round coverage of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Access Vikings is the Star Tribune's blog covering team news, rumors, games and all things purple.

Big contracts way for Smith to measure himself against other top NFL safeties

While the casual football fan might not have known before this offseason that Harrison Smith was one of the NFL’s top safeties, Smith had the respect of his peers. But now that the Vikings have rewarded him with that $51.25 million contract, the one that made him the league’s highest-paid at his position, Smith is no longer flying under the radar in Minnesota.

Appearing on our Access Vikings podcast yesterday, Smith talked about why it was important for him to become the highest-paid safety even though the frugal 27-year-old still drives a 2002 Chevy Tahoe.

“Not that it’s going to stick for even a couple of months because someone else will sign because that’s how it goes, but I think that it’s important when it’s your time,” said Smith, a first-time Pro Bowler in 2015. “If you’re one of the better players, then that’s what you shoot for. Then the guy that comes after you shoots for higher. And that’s not only how we as players value ourselves, but it helps raise the water level for the whole league.”

Smith added that big contracts are another way for the top players to measure themselves against each other “because everyone sees the film different.”

While Smith doesn’t have time in-season to pay close attention to his peers, he does have an appreciation for other star safeties around the NFL.

“I really pay most attention to [opposing offenses], but while doing that you see other players around the league and you tend to see a lot of the same guys showing up,” he said. “The thing is you don’t know exactly what their [assignment] is. It’s different than our defense. But you can appreciate, you know guys that are out there making plays, guys like Earl [Thomas], Eric [Berry], Rashad Jones, Tyrann Mathieu. I could go on and on. Malcolm Jenkins. There’s guys all over the league that are very good players and you can learn from watching all of those guys, which I enjoy doing as well.”

All those top safeties are utilized differently. Thomas spends the majority of his time as a deep safety. More than half of Mathieu’s snaps are as a slot cornerback. And Smith is often in the box or on the line of scrimmage. He says that is evidence of both the evolution of NFL football, with wide-open spread passing attacks, and the evolution of the safety position itself.

“You’re seeing more and more nickel defense on the field, so you’ve got one more guy out there [to cover], which is kind of why you see Tyrann [in the slot],” Smith said. “When we’re in that type of situation, maybe I’ll be down near the line of scrimmage a little more. So they like to move us around. It’s fun because you get to be more than just a deep player. You get to be all over the field. I think that’s how you can make a huge impact.”

It was an interesting chat that we had with Smith, who also talked about why he is willing to play the sport he loves despite the long-term health risks, what the Vikings defense needs to do to become the NFL’s very best and which fast-foot chain he ate at immediately after signing his megadeal.

Our conversation with Smith starts at the 57-minute mark of the podcast.

A look at the defensive backs heading into Vikings training camp

Leading up to the start of training camp on Friday, we will set the stage for Vikings camp by taking a look at where things stand at each position group. Today, we will finish off the series with cornerbacks and safeties.

A QUICK REFRESHER: Where do we begin? The Vikings re-signed safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerbacks Terence Newman and Marcus Sherels. They inked free-agent safety Michael Griffin and corner Melvin White. They drafted Clemson defensive backs Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse. And they made Harrison Smith the NFL’s highest-paid safety. The flurry of activity helped give the Vikings their deepest secondary in years.

HOT CAMP STORYLINE: For the third straight year of the Mike Zimmer era, the Vikings head down to Mankato with very little clarity at the spot next to Smith. Sendejo, last year’s starting strong safety, signed a four-year deal to return and lined up next to Smith during the spring. Griffin, several years removed from his last Pro Bowl appearance with the Titans, received a one-year contract with just $750,000 guaranteed. And the Vikings still have relative unknowns in the athletic but inconsistent Antone Exum and Anthony Harris, a late-season practice-squad promotion in 2015. Zimmer probably won’t declare a winner in this wide-open competition until after the preseason, as was the case in both 2014 and 2015.

TOP BATTLE TO WATCH: Cornerback Trae Waynes, the team’s top pick in 2015, played sparingly as a rookie because Newman refused to relinquish his starting gig in his first season in Minnesota. No, that is not a reason to worry about Waynes. That being said, Waynes, who played pretty well in some late-season cameos, is not a lock to be in the starting lineup at the start of this season. He is going to have to unseat Newman, who is back on another one-year deal. This battle is going to be a fun one to watch.

POSSIBLY IN DANGER: Nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had a nice bounce-back season in his second year in Minnesota. What did he earn for his troubles? The Vikings used their second-round pick to draft his possible replacement. While it seems more likely that Alexander, who has a remarkable backstory, will take over for Munnerlyn when the veteran’s contract expires after this season, there is a chance it could happen sooner than expected. Cutting Munnerlyn would save the Vikings $4.25 million, but my imaginary money is on Munnerlyn holding off the rookie in 2016.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Xavier Rhodes has all the tools needed to become one of the NFL’s top cover men. But the fourth-year cornerback has yet to put it all together. After a promising second season in 2014, he got off to a slow start in 2015 before stabilizing in the season’s second half. Entering the fourth year of his five-year rookie contract, Rhodes can make himself a lot of money by finally taking the leap in this pivotal season.

EARLY ROSTER BREAKDOWN:

  • On the 90-man roster: 10 cornerbacks, 6 safeties
  • Projected to make the 53-man: 5-6 corners, 4-5 safeties
  • Roster locks: 5 (Smith, Sendejo, Alexander, Rhodes, Waynes)
  • Good bets: 4 (Munnerlyn, Newman, Sherels, Griffin)
  • On the bubble: 5 (CB Jabari Price, White, Exum, Harris, Kearse)
  • Longshots: 2 (CB Keith Baxter, CB Tre Roberson)