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.

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