Vikings

Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) is stopped by Oakland Raiders offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) after intercepting Oakland quarterback Derek Carr (4) in the second quarter of an NFL football game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. The Vikings beat Oakland,34-14. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

EAGAN, Minn. — As Pro Bowl appearances pile up for Harrison Smith, the debate heats up on who is the best safety in Vikings history.

For years, it has generally been agreed the distinction goes to Paul Krause, who played in the NFL from 1964-79, including 1968-79 with the Vikings. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after intercepting a league-record 81 passes in his career.

“That’s a good question,” Krause said of the debate. “Harrison Smith can be the best strong safety (in Vikings history), but he has not passed me at free safety.”

Told that Krause is willing to concede breaking up the safety spots when it comes to Minnesota greatness, the modest Smith still deferred to Krause.

“I don’t know if I put myself up there yet (as the best safety),” said Smith, 30, “I think him having 81 picks, I don’t think that’s a record that will ever be touched. I think that’s fair to say (Krause is No. 1), and he’s got a (hall of fame) jacket.”

Smith, 30, has 21 interceptions in eight seasons, but it’s a much different era. Smith, who has four Pro Bowl appearances, is closing in on Krause, who made six of his eight Pro Bowls with Minnesota. Joey Browner, a strong safety who played with the Vikings from 1983-91, also made six Pro Bowls.

Smith and Krause are close. Smith wears the same No. 22 jersey that Krause did.

“Whenever I see him, I try to tell him that I try to do the number proud,” Smith said.

Smith said it was “cool” getting an interception against Oakland at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 22, when the Vikings honored coaches and players off their first Super Bowl team from 50 years ago, and Krause was on hand. Krause had an interception in Minnesota’s Super Bowl IV loss to Kansas City five decades ago.

“Harrison Smith could be the best strong safety in football, but he and I don’t play the same position,” said Krause, who made two Pro Bowls with Washington from 1964-67 before being traded to the Vikings. “It’s a completely different mental game between the strong safety and the free safety. He’s a great strong safety, but I don’t say that about free safety.”

The Vikings’ depth chart lists Smith as strong safety and Anthony Harris as the free safety, although Smith said it’s not that simple. He said both safeties move around constantly.

Where the hard-hitting Smith does some of his best work is near the line of scrimmage.

“He thinks he’s a linebacker,” Krause said. “He loves playing up there.”

Told what Krause said, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer didn’t disagree.

“Harrison, No. 1, he’s a good football player,” Zimmer said. “He could probably play linebacker if we asked him to. He does a lot of different things. He plays in coverage, he plays in the box, he blitzes. He does a lot of different things, so I would never disagree with Paul Krause.”

Smith is listed as 6-foot-2, 214 pounds. Could he play linebacker if the Vikings needed him in a pinch?

“I think I probably would need a little more weight to last the whole season, but for a couple of games here and there, I could probably figure something out,” Smith said.

But it is at safety where Smith has carved his place in Vikings history. In 2017, he was all pro and, according to Pro Football Focus, the NFL’s top-ranked safety.

Through five games this season, the analytics site ranks Smith as the NFL’s No. 5 safety. Harris ranks No. 2.

Smith has played well enough that Krause is grumbling less about his longtime belief that the Vikings should retire his number. In 2003, Krause wanted to bring more attention to that, so he declined to attend a game in which safety Brian Russell had a chance to tie his team record with an interception in six straight games. Russell did tie the record that day before his streak was snapped the following game.

“I just feel like I’ve broken an NFL record and it’s going to be tough for somebody to break, and they treat me just like I’m another guy,” Krause said of his current feelings on the subject.

But Krause regularly attends Vikings games, and he cheers for Smith.

“What I’ve done, it’s all in the records and if somebody doesn’t like it, I guess they don’t like it,” Krause said. “But let me first say this. I still say that Harrison Smith is a very, very good football player.”

Smith honored Krause in 2016 when Dynamic Drinkware, a Wisconsin company, formed a partnership with the Vikings and unveiled a plan to feature Smith and five other current players on six different drinking cups that would be used at U.S. Bank Stadium.

While Adrian Peterson, Teddy Bridgewater, Chad Greenway, Kyle Rudolph and Linval Joseph had their own separate cups, Smith insisted Krause’s picture also be on his. On the cup, a Smith quote read, “It’s an honor to share #22.”

“Harrison and I get along fine,” Krause said. “I don’t want to take anything away from him. He plays the game the way it should be played. And I’ve still got a couple of those cups.”

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