Vik­ings’ Har­ri­son Smith voted top NFL safety

Washington’s Swearinger and Bal­ti­more’s Wed­dle make top 10

The Capital - - SPORTS - By Den­nis Waszak Jr. AP Pro Foot­ball Writer

NEW YORK — Har­ri­son Smith has been mak­ing his mark for years with big hits and clutch in­ter­cep­tions for the Min­nesota Vik­ings.

As a key piece of one of the NFL’s top de­fenses, the play­mak­ing safety was voted the top player in the league at his po­si­tion by a panel of 10 foot­ball writ­ers for The As­so­ci­ated Press.

“The in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts at Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus rated Smith’s per­for­mance in 2017 the high­est by any player at any po­si­tion in the league,” Min­neapo­lis-based AP writer Dave Campbell said. “This year, the three-time Pro Bowl pick has three in­ter­cep­tions and three sacks in nine games. No player in the NFL hit both of those marks over the en­tire 2017 sea­son.

“With Earl Thomas out for the year, it’s easy to see Smith as the top safety in the league.”

The AP vot­ers over­whelm­ingly agreed. Smith re­ceived 97 points in a 10-points-toone-point sys­tem, gar­ner­ing eight of 10 first-place votes. He fin­ished sec­ond on one bal­lot and third on the other to eas­ily out­dis­tance the New York Giants’ Lan­don Collins, who had 69 points.

“Not only is Smith the clear leader at this po­si­tion, par­tic­u­larly with his skills in cov­er­age,” said New York-based writer Barry Wilner, “but he’s prob­a­bly Min­nesota’s most valu­able de­fen­sive player.”

That’s say­ing a lot, par­tic­u­larly with a BEN­GALS @ RAVENS

TV: Ra­dio: team that in­cludes de­fen­sive end Danielle Hunter, who leads the NFL with 111/2 sacks.

“Smith is an elite pass de­fender who can bat away a throw or pick off a pass on one play, then sack the QB on the next,” Washington-based Howard Fen­drich said.

Smith fin­ished sec­ond in last year’s vot­ing, with Thomas win­ning. The in­jured Sea­hawks star, who’s out for the sea­son with a bro­ken left leg, had 59 points — and re­ceived one first-place vote, from Bay Area-based Josh Dubow — to fin­ish third this year.

“Thomas is still the bench­mark at safety de­spite a sea­son-end­ing in­jury,” Dubow said.

There were 28 play­ers who re­ceived at least one vote, but Smith and Collins were the only safeties to ap­pear on all 10 bal­lots.

Collins jumped up two spots af­ter fin­ish­ing fourth last year. He doesn’t have any in­ter­cep­tions yet this sea­son, but has firmly estab­lished him­self as one of the best at his po­si­tion.

“Yeah, he’s on a team with one win (en­ter­ing Week 10), but Collins is strong tack­ler and pass de­fender,” New York-based Simmi But­tar said.

Ten­nessee’s Kevin Byard is fourth with 54 points, but re­ceived the other first-place vote from Nashville-based Teresa M. Walker.

“Byard is just get­ting bet­ter with ev­ery game,” Walker said, “and he was pretty good in 2017 when he was an All-Pro who tied for the league lead with eight in­ter­cep­tions and led the NFL with 10 take­aways.”

Byard has two in­ter­cep­tions this sea­son, and caused quite a stir with his star turn on his most re­cent pick. Af­ter in­ter­cept­ing Dak Prescott’s pass Mon­day night in Ten­nessee’s 28-14 vic­tory at Dal­las, Byard ran to the 50-yard line at AT&T Sta­dium and danced with his team­mates on the Cow­boys’ star logo.

“He should’ve left the Cow­boys star stomp to Ter­rell Owens,” said Philadel­phi­abased Rob Maaddi. “But Byard is a ball mag­net and no longer an un­known around the league, even to Deion San­ders.”

San­ders and Byard got into a Twit­ter feud in the off­sea­son about who the league’s top safety is. Prime Time picked Tyrann Mathieu, who didn’t fin­ish in the AP’s top 10.

New Eng­land’s Devin McCourty was fifth with 38 points, and has been a model of con­sis­tency for Bill Belichick’s de­fense.

“Any­one who can stick so long (nine years) on a re­volv­ing door that is the Pa­tri­ots’ de­fense is a spe­cial per­former,” Wilner said.

McCourty was fol­lowed by Washington’s D.J. Swearinger, who had 36 points.

“Swearinger does ev­ery­thing well, from cov­er­age to run sup­port to rush­ing the passer,” said Dubow, who had him ranked sec­ond on his bal­lot.

The Jets’ Ja­mal Adams (24 points), Los Angeles Charg­ers rookie Der­win James (21), Bal­ti­more’s Eric Wed­dle (20) and Kansas City’s Eric Berry (19) rounded out the top 10.

Berry ap­peared on six bal­lots de­spite hav­ing not played since last year’s sea­son opener.

“He might be No. 1 if he had played a down this sea­son,” Fen­drich said. “If he re­cov­ers enough from the heel in­jury that has kept him out for ev­ery game so far, he could be a big fac­tor in the playoffs for the Chiefs.”

The rank­ings:

1. Har­ri­son Smith, Vik­ings

2. Lan­don Collins, Giants

3. Earl Thomas, Sea­hawks

4. Kevin Byard, Ti­tans

5. Devin McCourty, Pa­tri­ots

6. D.J. Swearinger, Red­skins

7. Ja­mal Adams, Jets

8. Der­win James, Charg­ers

9. Eric Wed­dle, Ravens

10. Eric Berry, Chiefs

SETH WENIG/AP

Washington free safety D.J. Swearinger (re­turns an in­ter­cep­tion againt the Giants.

JEFF HAYNES/AP

Min­nesota free safety Har­ri­son Smith sacks Ari­zona quar­ter­back Josh Rosen.

WADE PAYNE/AP

Bal­ti­more Ravens safety Eric Wed­dle pre­pares for game against Ten­nessee.

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