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NOTEBOOK: Xavier Rhodes Hits Campaign Trail for Harrison Smith

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Xavier Rhodes used part of his bye week to campaign on behalf of Harrison Smith for Defensive Player of the Year.

The Vikings cornerback, who was selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, said he was upset that the safety wasn't among the initial selections to the annual all-star game and the only way to fix that mistake snubbing is to name Smith the NFL's top defender.

"Now we've got to go Defensive Player of the Year, take it a step higher and show them all," Rhodes said. "He's a great guy on and off the field."

Smith led the Vikings with five interceptions this season, which ranked fifth in the NFL. He is an important, versatile and often dominant part of a defense that finished first in the league in scoring defense (15.8 points against per game) and total defense (275.9 yards allowed per game).

Minnesota finished 13-3, won the NFC North and garnered the No. 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs. The Vikings defense finished second against the run, second against the pass and set an NFL record by allowing a paltry 25.2 conversion rate on third downs.

Rhodes said Smith is talented, but "his knowledge of the game" helps him reach another level.

"They always told me, 'The great ones don't rely on talent. They rely on the knowledge of the game, the down and distance, the situation of the game, the formations,' and Harrison has all of that down-pat," Rhodes said.

"This guy is unbelievable," Rhodes added. "I was upset that he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but now he's got to go a step higher. We've got to go with Defensive Player of the Year."

Smith intercepted Mitchell Trubisky to set up a game-winning field goal in Week 5, and he took over a couple of defensive series at Green Bay in Week 16, picking off Brett Hundley twice in Minnesota's first shutout since 1993.

Knowing Smith isn't much for self-promotion, Rhodes stood in front of Smith's locker on Tuesday to deliver his stump speech and posted on Twitter:

Earlier during the open locker room session, Smith was more subdued in explaining how this defense works with Head Coach Mike Zimmer and together.

"We all try to learn from him," Smith said. "I think the more he's been around us and understands what we can handle and can't, so if there's something he can throw our way, we'll try to pick it up."

Smith, who often works with safety Andrew Sendejo to disguise coverages by using pre-snap movement, said the chess match is "what makes football such a great game."

"When you watch on TV, the camera is so zoomed in, you just think it's hitting and running, but there's a mental aspect that's really a lot of fun," Smith said. "That's the stuff that you spend the most time on.

"I still have a lot to learn, but it's fun to try to pick it up," Smith added.

Zimmer recently said Smith has delivered each time that Vikings coaches have given him another task.

"I think the biggest thing that showed up was really how smart he is, instinctive and competitive, a playmaker, so all of those things showed up," Zimmer said. "At the first part, we were all trying to figure out what they do. Harrison kind of knows pretty much what everybody does. I can go talk to him and say, 'Hey, do this,' and he does it. I think the familiarity is good."

Bradford returns to practice

Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford returned to practice on Tuesday after he was designated to return from the Injured Reserve list.

Bradford was placed on Injured Reserve on Nov. 8 after complications of a knee injury, but teams are allowed to bring up to two players back from Injured Reserve once a player has spent at least eight weeks on IR.

Teams have a three-week window to practice the player without him counting against the roster maximum of 53.

Bradford joined Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Kyle Sloter in taking drops, making play-action fakes and executing change-of-direction drills during the portion of practice that is open.

Bradford last appeared in a game in Week 5 when he started at Chicago but re-aggravated a knee injury that sidelined him in Weeks 2-4. Keenum replaced Bradford against the Bears and closed out the regular season with an 11-3 mark as a starter. Bridgewater was able to play in a game for the first time on Dec. 17 against Cincinnati after missing all of the 2016 season with a knee injury.

"It was great," said Keenum of Bradford's return to the practice fields. "Yeah, Sam's out there slinging it, like he always is. Pumped for him to get back.

"You want depth everywhere," Keenum said. "And you want guys that help the team win – and he's one of them. We have a great quarterbacks room, and it's great to have more than one set of eyes looking at defenses and popping ideas around the quarterbacks room."

Avoiding rookie wall

Vikings rookies and select veterans reported to training camp on July 23 a couple days ahead of veterans, so that the coaching staff could work on some things with the first-year players.

They've been grinding ever since, through camp, the preseason and a 16-game regular-season slate.

Linebacker Ben Gedeon, who **rode to Mankato** with Pat Elflein and arrived on campus blaring Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," said the first-year players have picked up tips from veterans on how to avoid "the rookie wall."

"You realize how long a season is but try to lean on the older guys who have been around and know how long a season is," Gedeon said. "It's probably more mental. College season is 12 weeks, no preseason, so you've just got to get used to it."

Gedeon led the Vikings with 18 special teams tackles.

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