To count down the days until Vikings rookies, quarterbacks and select veterans report to Mankato on July 23, we will reveal our ranking of the 17 most important Vikings players heading into the 2017 season. Look for the next player on our list every weekday morning at Access Vikings.
This list, created by Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer, is not a ranking of the best players on the team, though sheer talent is obviously an essential factor. It is a ranking of the players whose upcoming season will have the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it's in 2017 or beyond.
Coming in at No. 9 on our list is safety Harrison Smith.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Harrison Smith being the most valuable Vikings defender came in the final month of the 2016 season, after the star safety suffered a significant ankle injury in Week 13.
Smith, who had already been playing on a bum left ankle before further injuring it in that loss to the Cowboys, missed the next two games, one of which was the ugly 34-6 home loss to the Colts. In that loss, which more or less killed the team's playoffs hopes, the Colts and their no-name tight ends repeatedly exploited the Vikings down the middle of the field.
Smith could have shut it down after that loss, like Adrian Peterson did. Instead, he gutted it out for the final two games of the season, though he was clearly not himself in the Christmas Eve drubbing in Green Bay.
Weeks after playing in his second straight Pro Bowl, Smith opted to have surgery to clean up that ankle. He was still working his way back to full health during spring workouts but was a full-go by minicamp.
The Vikings, whose defense tailed off down the stretch last season, need Smith healthy and playing like the guy we saw in 2014 and 2015.
That's not to say Smith played poorly before initially injuring his ankle in Week 11. He was still one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL and has the Pro Football Focus grades to back up that assessment. But he was not quite as impactful as he was in 2014 and 2015, when he was arguably one of the league's top three safeties, along with Earl Thomas and Eric Weddle.
If Smith returns to that elite level and some of his young teammates continue to develop, the Vikings could have a defense that dominates throughout the season, instead of just the first couple of months.
On the flip side, if Smith were to get injured again, the Vikings would be hurting, too. No offense to Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse, still their top backups, but the drop-off from Smith to the second-stringers is significant, perhaps greater than any other position besides quarterback.
The Star Tribune's ranking of the 17 most important Vikings in 2017:
11. Trae Waynes, CB
16. Pat Elflein, C/G