Are the Vikings Approaching a Za’Darius Smith Reconciliation (and Maybe Even an Extension)?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the strangest thing to occur after the unexpected Za’Darius Smith farewell is nothing at all. The veteran edge rusher said goodbye and then … nothing happened.

Some believed a cut would occur prior to the third day of the new league year since that’s when a portion of his contract firmly hit Minnesota’s cap. Those assumptions proved misguided. Clearly, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah thought better of recouping cap space through a simple cut. If cap space is to arrive, then it’ll need to come through a trade.

Yes, the GM who covets value wants to have both draft capital and cap space. Or, alternatively, a different player and cap space. Or, maybe, another season with Smith playing for the Purple & Gold.

The Za’Darius Smith Reconciliation

Modest second-half aside, Za’Darius Smith did some great things for the Vikings in 2022.

At the end of the season, Smith had 10 sacks. A whopping 9.5 sacks arrived between Week 1 and Week 9. As the season wore on, the veteran struggled to convert pressures into sacks. Discouraging, certainly, but not a reason to totally write him off.

Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins (73) looks to block Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the appeal of moving on is twofold: honoring his request to find a new team (and thus avoid an ugly holdout) and clear up more cap space. Take a look at the options and potential cost savings:

Salary Cap Maneuvre Cap Savings
Cut (Pre-June 1)$7,106,861
Cut (Post-June 1)$8,773,529
Trade (Pre-June 1)$12,156,861
Trade (Post-June 1)$13,823,529
Over the Cap coming through with the great salary cap info.

Coming into the draft, Smith found himself in an article from Brad Spielberger of PFF. The article – “20 NFL players with the most to lose, gain from 2023 NFL Draft” – entertains the idea that Smith could be shipped out for draft capital:

If Minnesota has a prospect they like fall to them at No. 23 overall, could they go ahead and get much younger at the position and grant Smith his wish to play elsewhere? Smith won’t return a major draft pick haul, especially if he’s looking for new money, which seems to be the case, but the Vikings have just five total selections and may take any extra ammo they can get while also clearing his money off their somewhat bloated books.

Questions Answered: X-Factor for Week 1, Irv Smith Prediction, Trubisky
Jul 28, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

More recently, Albert Breer indicated that the Vikings “will listen” to teams interested in acquiring Dalvin Cook and/or Smith. Having a national insider leak this information functions as a billboard for the rest of the NFL with a clear message writ large: Offer Us Something for Our Star RB & EDGE.

Will He Stick Around?

While a trade still makes the most sense, we can’t completely overlook the possibility that he could stick around.

Folks, this is the NFL. If there is an issue, money can fix it. Smith isn’t happy? That makes sense. For the most part, he played great season, no small feat given how much Ed Donatell’s defense struggled. Smith, very understandably, wants to cash in coming off an impressive year. Who’s to say Minnesota can’t be the team to offer that cash?

Consider what Spielberger says up above. The Vikings could have been even more tempted to move on if they had chosen an edge rusher. Myles Murphy was available, and so too were Nolan Smith, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, and B.J. Ojulari (among others).

Instead, they brought Jordan Addison aboard. Minnesota could feel very comfortable with Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport – Number 0 – but being three-deep at pass rusher is a luxury any team would covet. If so, Za’Darius still has a role.

NFL: NFL Draft Red Carpet
Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; USC wide receiver Jordan Addison walks the NFL Draft Red Carpet before the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The fronrunners to start along the defensive line are Harrison Phillips, Khiris Tonga, and Dean Lowry. Combined, the trio has 19 sacks across 199 career games. In other words, the DL’s most prominent players aren’t in town for their ability to intimidate Jordan Love, Jared Goff, and Justin Fields. Instead, they’re trying to shut down Aaron Jones, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Khalil Herbert.

Maybe James Lynch steps up. Esezi Otomewo could take a sophomore leap and Jaquelin Roy could be precisely what the DL rotation needs. Even still, there’s reason to be concerned about the lack of pass-rushing upside along the interior. If the edge rushers don’t get home, Minnesota is unlikely to get much pressure. Brian Flores will thus be leaning on blitzers and his edge rushers to get the job done.

Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebackers Danielle Hunter (99) and Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Last year, Donatell commonly asked Smith to move all over the line to find favorable pass rushing matchups. Couldn’t we see something similar in 2023? Smith, a pass-rushing specialist, keeping his legs and lungs fresh on early downs so he can join the fun on 3rd down. Blocking Hunter, Davenport, and Smith is a challenge few are up to conquering.

An extension offers the potential of clearing cap room in 2023 while also prompting Za’Darius Smith to be amenable to returning to Minnesota. The team can carve out nearly $7.9 million with this approach, a total that could be used to (among other things) further equip Flores for success in the upcoming season. Even more important, Smith could get some more money.

Don’t hold your breath on a Smith extension, but the team’s decision to completely overlook edge rusher in the draft means there’s still a need for his talent in Minnesota.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.