Harrison Smith's rookie season was marked by hard-hitting plays, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
His intense style gave the secondary a big boost. It also yielded one ejection and a $21,000 fine.
But Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he never saw his young safety back down from the pressure of being a starter on a playoff team.
"He wasn't afraid to take chances, which allowed him to make some plays," Frazier said. "You don't always see that in rookies."
Smith and the Vikings are counting on him building on his impactful first year in the NFL.
He started all 16 regular-season games and the playoff loss at Green Bay, tallying 86 solo tackles and 51 assists, according to coaching staff film. He also had one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 13 passes defended.
Smith was also ejected from one game for making contact with an official and was fined for a horse-collar tackle in another game.
But the positives outweighed the negatives, and he has opened training camp as a clear starter and emerging leader.
"I really think that playing in all 16 games was a great accomplishment," Smith said. "You have your highs and lows, and it's such a long season, coming in from college."
Smith was drafted late in the first round after the Vikings traded up to No. 29, trying to solidify a position that they have been searching for a long-term answer for since Darren Sharper left in 2008.
Frazier said he was impressed with Smith's poise and intelligence as he learned on the job, making mistakes and the corresponding corrections.
"He's a not a rah-rah player, but he made plays that kind of lifted our entire defense," Frazier said. "He was a security blanket for our defense. He gave us something that we were lacking and something that we needed."
Smith downplayed the notion that playing too aggressively could be a problem for him.
"As long as you're doing your job, everything works out," he said.
Smith and Jamarca Sanford started the last 14 games together at safety, building chemistry with each other after Mistral Raymond was hurt. The relationship, Sanford said, was immediate.
"We're two of the same kind of players," Sanford said. "We both love to play in the box. We're guys who like to play real physical."
With the departure of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, the secondary is lacking an obvious leader.
Sanford is the most experienced player in his fifth season, and cornerback Chris Cook has been with the team for four training camps. But given his position and ability, Smith's leadership will be critical on this defense.
"In my opinion, you can't be a leader without having the respect of all the guys," Smith said. "You can't force it. It has to happen. I look forward to working on that and getting better at it."
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Smith earning respect after rookie season
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