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Zulgad: Harrison Smith gets his payday, now Vikings must turn attention to Brian O’Neill

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Training Camp
Jul 30, 2021; Eagan, MN, United States; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) takes the field at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Smith long ago established himself as one of the NFL’s top safeties. On Sunday, the Vikings rewarded the 32-year-old with a contract extension that will continue to put his pay in line with his play.

Smith, who was set to enter the final season of his contract, reportedly agreed to a four-year, $64 million extension that means he’s now signed for $74.83 million over five years. That will make him the second-highest paid safety in the NFL to 25-year-old Jamal Adams, who recently agreed to a four-year extension worth $70 million with Seattle. That deal includes $38 million in guarantees.

It’s the last figure that’s the most important and, in Smith’s case, the extension includes $26.38 million guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. Smith will receive $22.5 million over the next eight months and his new money average will be $15.3 million for 2022 to 2024.

The Vikings’ announcement of the agreement — the team did not reveal any terms — comes as no surprise. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf long have made a habit of taking care of their top players since buying the franchise in 2005. Last year, running back Dalvin Cook agreed to a five-year, $63 million contract, including $28.125 million in guarantees, just before the regular season began.

The Vikings might not be done writing checks before the season opener on Sept. 12 in Cincinnati. Brian O’Neill, a second-round pick in 2018, is entering the final season of his rookie contract and is in line for a substantial payday. O’Neill is set to make $2.4 million this season, but is certain to get a huge raise — especially when you look at what some other players at his position have gotten in recent months.

In June, the New Orleans Saints made 27-year-old All-Pro Ryan Ramczyk the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL by giving him a five-year, $96 million deal that included $60 million in guarantees. A month later, the Indianapolis Colts agreed to a four-year, $72.4 million extension with Braden Smith. Smith, 25, will get $42 million in guarantees and is now the third-highest paid right tackle in the NFL behind Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, who has a $72 million deal that guarantees $55.845 million.

O’Neill is the best player on what has been a shaky offensive line and there is almost no way the team is going to let him play out his contract. The comparison to Braden Smith’s deal is appropriate considering both players are 25 and were second-round picks in 2018. Smith went 37th overall, O’Neill 62nd. Smith has started 43 of the 45 games in which he has played, missing one game in 2018 and two in 2020. O’Neill has started 42 of 46 games, missing one game in each of his first two seasons before starting all 16 in 2021.

Smith received an 80 grade from Pro Football Focus last season, putting him eighth among right tackles, and O’Neill had a grade of 78, placing him 11th.

These contract extensions can get a bit tricky when it comes to fitting everything in under the salary cap, while trying to retain some flexibility to pursue free agents.

The Vikings entered Sunday 14th in the NFL with $13.29 million of salary-cap space, according to the Over The Cap website, but that number drops to 26th in the league with only $4.117 million in projected cap space for 2022. That’s with a maximum figure of $208.2 million for each team. The Vikings, as they always do, will put their faith in executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski to find a way to free up space and make things work.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has an astronomical salary-cap figure of $45 million for next season, but that number could be reduced by extending his contract (as the Vikings did after 2019), or by trading Cousins and thus creating $35 million in cap room, while taking a dead-money hit of $10 million.

But the Vikings would have to be convinced that 2021 third-round pick Kellen Mond is ready to take over for Cousins, or the team would need to have a plan to go with another, less expensive quarterback. That’s an issue for another day.

Sunday’s move means Smith will be around to continue as a leader of the Vikings’ defense. The 29th overall pick in the 2012 draft from Notre Dame, Smith has started 129 out of 130 career games and has only missed one game in the past four seasons. He has 28 interceptions in his career, including a team-high five last year, 13.5 sacks, 31 quarterback hits, seven forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. He also led the Vikings with 10 pass deflections last year and has 66 in his career.

Smith’s statistical output is only part of his value. He also is one of Zimmer’s smartest players and his ability to move around from play-to-play can cause confusion for opposing quarterbacks.

Smith, who has been named to the Pro Bowl five times and was an All-Pro in 2017, likely will be headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, if he puts together a few more standout seasons. He would join former Viking Paul Krause, the only player in franchise history to start more games at safety (150).

Smith also is a shoo-in for induction into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor one day. But given the contract Smith signed, it’s clear the Vikings feel that day is a long ways away.