The longer Harrison Smith has played for Mike Zimmer, the more he has learned about the defensive backs who, the coach likes to remind him, still rank higher on Zimmer's all-time list than Smith does.
"He's always kind of let me know that Darren Woodson was his guy. His best safety," Smith said. "So I've always kind of been chasing Woody in that way, and continue to do so."
Smith, 32, spent three years as teammates with another player — cornerback Terence Newman — who ranks near the top of Zimmer's list. The two still stay in touch, and now that Smith is in his 10th season, Newman's longevity remains something of a gold standard for him.
"I think he was 39 playing his last year at corner. I'm still not sure how he was able to manage that," Smith said. "He really took care of himself and knew what his body needed."
The four-year, $64 million contract extension the Vikings gave Smith this week could allow him to finish his career in Minnesota and, he hopes, mimic some of the mid-30s performance he saw from Newman. Smith is now signed through 2025 with the team that took him 29th overall in the 2012 draft, and talked Monday of spending the rest of his NFL years with the Vikings.
Smith received a signing bonus of $9.579 million, as well as a roster bonus of $3.525 million this year. He is in line for another $8 million roster bonus before 2022. The Vikings could still reap about $5.8 million in cap savings if they released him after this season, but they would still incur $7.663 million in dead money charges, making it more likely his job is secure for at least two more seasons.
On Monday, though, as Smith talked about becoming the second highest-paid safety in the NFL, he took a moment to pause and reflect on a career that could land the five-time Pro Bowl selection in the Vikings' Ring of Honor one day.
"I've seen it happen many times [where players return to the Vikings after leaving for another team], and I talk to other guys around the league and what it's like in their locker rooms and things like that," Smith said. "We've always had a special locker room, a lot of guys who are close, a lot of guys who look after each other. That's for a reason. That starts at how you draft guys, how you scout guys. So it definitely helps to be a part of a group like that, when you look out for one another on and off the field."
Zimmer, Smith admitted, can be a bit of an acquired taste as a coach, but the safety said playing for Zimmer has opened his eyes to how little he knew about football before the two started working together. The coach, Smith said, has broadened his understanding of defensive football beyond just the responsibilities of his own position.
He has reached all five of his Pro Bowls while playing for Zimmer, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2017 and a second-team All-Pro pick in 2018. He is seventh in team history with 28 interceptions, leads the Vikings in all-time interceptions returns for touchdowns (four) and could pass Paul Krause in 2022 for the most starts by a Vikings safety.
"I feel like he's one of the best guys that I've ever had as a safety — and that includes a lot of really good players," Zimmer said. "It's great to have him here, probably for the rest of his career, and he kind of embodies, really, everything we try to do here.
"I've coached some Hall of Famers. And he's — I mean, is he there? I don't know. But he's always well-respected in the league, and the coaches all respect him, and I'm glad we've had him for the eight years I've been here, anyway."
Through what Zimmer called a long set of negotiations, Smith's priority was to stay in Minnesota. His new deal affords him a chance to be the rare player who spends his entire career with one team.
"Contracts aren't something I've worried about in my career, and it's allowed me to just focus on playing football," he said. "Those things tend to take care of themselves. So I still have that approach, but I understand the reality of getting older in the league, as well. Being able to be a Viking for my career is the most important."