Vikings MVP May Not Be Justin Jefferson

Vikings MVP May Not be Justin Jefferson

Poll any Minnesota Vikings fan, obsessed or casual, and she’ll explain why wideout Justin Jefferson is the team’s MVP.

And while she wouldn’t be wildly off base with the assertion, a different Vikings player is quietly prosecuting the case for team MVP in 2022.

That’s Za’Darius Smith, an EDGE-rushing free agent signed away from the Green Bay Packers in March. Smith is rubbing his thumbprint all over the Vikings franchise — so much so that a reasonable argument can be outlined for his MVP resume. Here’s why.

The Sacks

Za’Darius Smith Breaking Packers Hearts
Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Current Total = 8.5
NFL Record = 22.5
Za’Darius Smith’s Pace =
21

Any NFL record from now on is slightly cheapened by the schedule expansion to 17 games, but, hey, that isn’t a player’s fault.

Almost quietly, Smith is bumping against the NFL’s sack record pace, only needing to sustain his current production while stepping on the gas a bit more. Michael Strahan and T.J. Watt share the NFL single-season record for sacks with 22.5. And Smith isn’t far away if his current antics continue.

Smith is tied for the NFL sack lead at the moment with New England Patriots pass rusher Matthew Judon. Too, Judon has played eight games to Smith’s seven.

The Vikings EDGE rusher needs 1.45 sacks per game the rest of the way to break the record. Did you have that possibility on your bingo board in August?

The Tackles for Loss, Too

How Many Awards Does Za'Darius Smith Win?
Oct 2, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports.

Current Total = 13
NFL Record = 39
Za’Darius Smith’s Pace =
32

Tackles for loss began tracking in 1999, so there’s a caveat.

Still, J.J. Watts holds the since-1999 record with 39. At Smith’s current pace, on deck to tabulate 32 tackles for loss, he’d rank second all-time by season’s end with 32. Smith has 13 TFLs through seven games. That’s not normal.

Smith has one more TFL than Las Vegas Raiders defender Maxx Crosby (12). They’re both stifling ball carriers in the backfield at an alarming rate. If Smith maintains the sack and TFL pace, he may even garner attention for Defensive Player of the Year or Comeback Player of the Year.

The PFF Grade

12 Snap Reactions after Dolphins-Vikings
Miami Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) gets sacked by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith. © JIM RASSOL/THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Not convinced that the verdict could be Smith over Jefferson for team MVP yet? Fair. The NFL is an offense-driven league, and some pundits merely try to keep pace by explaining defense matters, too. We get it.

Regardless, according to Pro Football Focus, Smith is outperforming Jefferson at his craft through seven games. Headlining the Vikings bend-don’t-break defense, here’s where Smith ranks among his purple peers:

1. LT – Christian Darrisaw (85.8)
2. EDGE – Za’Darius Smith (84.4)
3. WR – Justin Jefferson (80.6)
4. EDGE – Danielle Hunter (79.9)
5. CB – Patrick Peterson (77.9)
6. RT – Brian O’Neill (76.5)
7. DL – Dalvin Tomlinson (74.6)
8. QB – Kirk Cousins (74.4)
9. LG – Ezra Cleveland (74.0)
10. RB – Dalvin Cook (73.9)

Smith and the Vikings embark on a trip to the nation’s capital on Sunday for a matchup against the Washington Commanders. In two career games versus Washington, Smith has yet to log a sack.


Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).