It's hard to believe, but Harrison Smith is finishing up his 10th NFL season.
The Vikings drafted Smith 29th overall in 2012; since then, he's been a staple of Minnesota's defense, setting himself apart as one of the league's best at disguising coverages and making things difficult on opposing offenses.
He is a safety for his time, adept at the blitz disguises and last-second coverage shifts used to fool quarterbacks who started learning how to beat Cover-2 defenses while playing Madden on an Xbox. He has 29 career interceptions, more than any active player who's spent his entire career at safety. He has nudged his way into comparisons with Hall of Famers such as Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, John Lynch and Steve Atwater, the players Smith lionized as a kid in Tennessee.
None of it, not playing safety in an era of record-breaking offenses, not adapting to the rules changes that continue to make his job more complex and certainly not reaching the postseason, is as easy as it might once have seemed.
According to Goessling, Smith has "tried sharing his views about how rule changes have made defenders' jobs difficult but knows why he's not likely to get much of an audience."
"I'm not a blunt instrument that thinks, 'Oh, we should be able to hit anybody wherever we want,' " Smith told Goessling. "But it does make it hard on defensive players, and in some scenarios, I think it makes it impossible to participate in the game without penalty. It's just what it is.
"I've tried to adapt," Smith said. "I still don't get it done every time. But all you can do is try to prepare yourself."
Goessling wrote that Smith hasn't "found much success as an advocate."
He said he attended one NFL Players Association meeting to speak on rules changes he's found particularly onerous.
An increased emphasis on defensive holding and pass interference, Smith said, has made "playing man-to-man and not getting penalties" the hardest thing to do on a field. The league's targeting rules, which have shrunk the strike zone for a legal hit, can turn throws over the middle into the kinds of plays like the one that got Smith ejected in Houston last year.
"They tell us to stay out of the head and neck area, and a lot of guys do that, and then the player ducks [his] head," Smith said. "I'm not saying they're wrong for that, because I'm sure it's just natural to do that. But then it creates the hits they say they don't want to see.
"All these things happen so fast," he added. "Most of them, you can tell if there's vicious intent or not. I know it's hard to write a rule that way, but just as human beings, you can look at something and say, 'He wasn't trying to kill anybody. He was just trying to get to the ball.' "
Justin Jefferson ranked NFL's No. 3 WR by Bucky Brooks
The Vikings overall season has been a disappointment, as they prepare for their regular-season finale against Chicago having already been eliminated from playoff contention.
But individual performances still have garnered plenty of praise, including – of course – wide receiver Justin Jefferson. The 2020 first-round draft pick enters Week 18 with 103 catches for 1,509 yards and nine touchdowns.
NFL Media Analyst Bucky Brooks recently ranked the league’s top five receivers, and he slated Jefferson at No. 3. Brooks wrote:
Jefferson has earned elite status as a playmaker after shattering Odell Beckham Jr.'s record for receiving yards by a player within his first two seasons (2,909 and counting). He is a dynamic route runner with exceptional stop-start quickness and burst, as well as a deep trick bag of releases to create separation from defenders on the perimeter. The second-year pro is a master at getting open and making plays against single and double coverage, which makes him a prototypical WR1 in a league built on the passing game.
The only two receivers ranked ahead of Jefferson by Brooks were Davante Adams (Packers) and Cooper Kupp (Rams), both of whom Minnesota has faced in recent weeks.
Adams is like a Pigskin Picasso with his brilliant artistry as a route runner and playmaker, leading the football world to fawn over his talents. The Pro Bowl pass-catcher is second in the league in receptions (117) while averaging nearly 100 receiving yards per game (99.9). This coming after a 2020 campaign in which he scored a whopping 18 touchdowns in 14 games. Considering No. 17 is essentially a one-man band in the Packers' passing game, it is hard to rate any receiver above Adams at this point.
Brooks' complete list was as follows: Adams, Kupp, Jefferson, Deebo Samuel (49ers) and Ja'Marr Chase (Bengals).