The Case for Cutting/Keeping Za’Darius Smith

Questions Answered: Za'Darius' Role
Oct 2, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) celebrate victory at the end of the second half of the NFL International Series game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

Za’Darius Smith did a lot of good things in 2022.

By the end of the season, Smith had 10 sacks, 53 hurries, and 78 total pressures (per PFF). He finished 13th overall in the PFF edge rusher rankings, a lofty position for someone coming off a (mostly) missed season and who is just getting into his 30s.

However, there is ongoing concern about how injury and age may be impacting his performance. From the Dallas disaster onward, Smith only put together 0.5 sacks. Some of that came down to a lingering injury, though it was discouraging to see him struggle so mightily after it had become horribly obvious that the defense’s only chance of success rested in creating pressure and turnovers.

A cap crunch is playing out in front of our purple eyes. What will Kwesi Adofo-Mensah decide to do with his well-paid veteran EDGE?

Cutting Za’Darius Smith

Cutting Smith frees up more than $12.15 million on the cap. That’s where the debate about Smith’s 2023 roster spot has to begin.

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New York Giants running back Matt Breida (31) runs with the ball against Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) during the third quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Since the team is in the red by roughly $23.4 million, Adofo-Mensah will need to seriously consider all kinds of cap manoeuvers and tricks to get the finances in order. If nothing changes, the edge rusher will carry the 5th-largest cap hit for Minnesota into next season.

Furthermore, the aforementioned lack of production in the second half of the season was concerning. In the playoffs, Smith was unable to take over the game. He picked up 3 tackles and 1 TFL, but there were no sacks or forced fumbles. He was on the field for 52 snaps, 72% of the time.

When we add it all together, we can arrive at some purple pessimism that will be persuasive to some.

Za’Darius is venturing into his 30s and has battled injuries. He is carrying a large cap hit and wasn’t nearly as effective in the season’s second half. Does it make sense to keep him around for Brian Flores and the revamped Vikings defense?

Keeping Za’Darius Smith

Edge rushers capable of elite play don’t just grow on trees. Letting one walk out the door simply to gain some cap room could be remarkably foolish.

Perhaps the team ought to consider adjusting Smith’s role, allowing the veteran to focus more on rushing the passer. Now, in fairness, he is already on this trajectory. Last season, Smith had 495 pass rush snaps and 242 run defense snaps. One wonders, though, if those numbers should get even more skewed.

It’s possible that even taking away his starting spot would be wise. Let a strong run defender like Patrick Jones get the nod to begin the game, thus keeping Smith’s legs fresh. Taking away the starting role may better enable him to take on the finishing role. When the game is on the line in the 4th quarter and Minnesota needs pressure, Smith may be better equipped to get the job done.

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

Furthermore, we shouldn’t overlook that Smith’s modest statistical production has much to do with his teammates and defensive coordinator. Ask yourself: how difficult is it to get home for a sack when receivers are constantly getting loose in coverage? Covering well and being able to get to the QB walk hand-in-hand.

Some rock-solid, competitive man coverage might be precisely what the pass-rush doctor ordered.

The Final Word

Minnesota’s GM needs to ensure he’s giving Brian Flores everything he needs to drag the Vikings back from the doldrums of defensive drudgery. Indeed, Mr. Adofo-Mensah needs to give the chef good ingredients to work with.

There’s an argument to be made about looking to restructure Smith’s deal, moving money around in order to give the team more flexibility in the present moment. A restructure could free up more than $4.9 million. An extension could add close to $7.9 million in cap space.

Dec 19, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores reacts while walking on the field before the game against the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The point, folks, is that we’re not looking at a scenario where a cut is the only way of creating more room in the budget. Adofo-Mensah could rework the finances in a manner that provides immediate cap relief while still keeping the talented edge rusher in town.

As some you will know by now, I’ve been harping about the importance of collecting pass rushers for a little while. Last offseason, I could be found advocating for just one more purple pass rusher. The hope is that Minnesota will assess the current situation and conclude that letting a talented pass rusher go isn’t the way toward contention, instead recommitting to getting more defensive weapons for Mr. Flores.

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