Being tabbed as the Minnesota Vikings’ largest and most ambitious pickup of this past offseason, former Green Bay Packers linebacker Za’Darius Smith inked a three-year, $42 million contract featuring a five million dollar signing bonus and $11.5 million guaranteed. These numbers, while fun to look at, need some background. Why did he fetch such a contract, and how did the Vikings manage to snag him in the first place?
Who is Za’Darius Smith?
After being drafted in the 4th round of the 2015 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, Smith sat as a backup behind Ravens legend Terrell Suggs (no doubt a strong mentor on the edge) for the following season. From 2016-2017, Smith would appear in a total of 27 games and start eight.
The stats he would gather over that time would be less than impressive, a pair of pass deflections, two forced fumbles, four and a half sacks, and an average number of tackles. The next year, 2018, is clearly Smith’s breakout season. He appeared in every game that season, racking up eight starts. At the end of the season, he had racked up 45 total tackles, eight and a half sacks, two pass deflections and a forced fumble. These stats lead the Ravens in sacks, and were sixth in tackles. After his best campaign so far, the Green Bay Packers came knocking.
Smith’s Time in Green Bay
In March of 2019, Smith agreed to a four-year, $66 million contract. His first year with the Packers would feature 13.5 sacks, a new and current career high. In his second season (2020), Smith was voted to the Pro Bowl and made the 2020 All-Pro Second Team. His next season, and final with the Packers, would be a near-complete scratch due to a nagging back injury. On March 14, 2022, Smith was released by the Green Bay Packers.
Even with his injury risks, competition for Smith during free agency was quite fierce. It seemed very possible that he would reunite with his original squad in Baltimore, but at the last moment the Vikings offered him seven million dollars more, as well as five million dollars in potential incentives.
Smith’s Next Chapter
With all of the previous considered, what does this signing mean for the Vikings? Last season, Minnesota’s defense was less than impressive to say the least. That, however, can’t really be placed majorly on the defensive line. The Vikings finished the 2021 season with 51 sacks, tied for the second-best total since sacks became an official stat in 1982. Knowing this, the signing becomes more of a “want” than a “need.” But really, what does that change?
If I’m Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, I have the opportunity to snag a potential all-pro edge, and I have the cap space to do so, why not? Even in a worst-case, “injured for half the season” scenario, the deal is still very favorable for the Vikings. Smith’s initial cap hit is only $3.3 million and the Vikings can move on from him after one season for about $9.5 million, according to Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune.
This gives Minnesota an easy out if the aforementioned worse-case scenario actually occurs. If he plays even three quarters of the upcoming season, he could be the spark the Vikings need to help their developing secondary and possibly push the team back into serious playoff contention. This signing has been constructed to have no true downside. I wish I could give some long-winded paper about the pros and cons, but I genuinely have trouble finding any glaring issues. As an added bonus, Smith said he “can’t wait to face [the Packers] in the first game and see that look on Aaron Rodgers’ face when he sees me on the other side of the ball,” in his appearance on The Rich Eisen Show. Surely friendly banter, but regardless, I speak for all Vikings fans when I say this: I can’t wait to see what Za’Darius Smith can do in purple and gold.