Vikings Dream of Hunter & Za’Darius Tandem Comes to Life

Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter
Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter

As NFL free agency hits Week 2, the Vikings cornerback situation remains unsettled and in need of a talent infusion, and the Vikings likely are seeking a veteran safety after Xavier Woods’ departure. But whoever winds up playing in the secondary—which will likely include a first-round pick in next month’s draft–will be helped immensely by a dominant pass rush. 

With that in mind, the Vikings locked up their two-time Pro Bowl defensive end/edge rusher Danielle Hunter by allowing his $18 roster bonus to take effect on March 20. 

And then, in a surprising move that could turn out great if he’s healthy, Minnesota signed two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Za’Darius Smith to a three-year, $42 million deal that reportedly has a max value of $47 million via incentives or escalators. It’s a bonanza for Smith, who agreed and then reneged on a four-year, $35 million deal that could max out at $50 million with Baltimore.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) during Packers Family Night at Lambeau Field, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Zadarius Mask

Smith, like Hunter (torn pec), is coming off a major injury after his back injury cost him all but one game during the 2022 season. Vikings coaches and fans will love seeing Smith in Minnesota purple, which would significantly upgrade the Vikings defense (if Smith returns to top form). At the same time, arch-rival Green Bay has lost their best outside linebacker/edge rusher, who produced 26 sacks over the two-year period of 2019-2020.

Dallas and Kansas City reportedly were also in the mix for Smith but what probably helped seal the deal was his connection to two Vikings coaches—assistant head coach Mike Pettine (Smith’s former defensive coordinator in Green Bay) and outside linebackers coach/pass rush specialist Mike Smith who was Za’Darius’ position coach with the Packers. 

Kirk Cousins will be happy to have Smith as a teammate after he sacked him 3 ½ times in a December 2019 game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings had to clear cap space to sign Smith and make other moves, such as last week’s signings of defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Jordan Hicks along with tendering kicker Greg Joseph and re-signing punter Jordan Berry and backup QB Sean Mannion. They created this cap room by restructuring the contracts of Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith, and they activated the clause in Hunter’s contract that allows the team to convert his $18 million roster bonus to a signing bonus which is saving $13.5 million on the cap. 

They will likely need to free up more cap room via restructures, trades, or releases in order to sign their draft class and add free agent help in the secondary and in the interior offensive line (restricted free agent guard Ryan Bates recently visited and the Bills have the right to match an offer). 

There’s been a lot of hoopla in the Minnesota sports market this week after the Twins signed all-star shortstop Carlos Correa and the Wild traded for reigning Vezina winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. I like new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah stepping up to sign a big-time free agent in Za’Darius Smith, which should have a similar effect in terms of raising the hopes of a Minnesota sports team as long as trading Hunter isn’t part of the equation (unless they get an offer too good to pass up and then draft another top-quality pass rusher in the early rounds). 

Around the NFL Observations:  

1.The Cleveland Browns have made many questionable player moves in their quest to become a consistent playoff team and try to reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl. Picking an average-at-best QB in Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall and ahead of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 draft has proven to be a major error. 

Now the Browns are paying a huge price to Houston in the form of three No. 1s, a No. 3 and two No. 4 picks to acquire Deshaun Watson and get a No. 6 pick back. And then, in order to close the deal since Watson had a no-trade clause so he had control over which team he would be traded to, Cleveland gave Watson an NFL-record breaking, a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. That’s a ridiculous $80 million more than the Packers just committed to Aaron Rodgers under the previous highest guarantee.   

I think Watson as strictly the player– at 26 years old– is worth that much in draft choice compensation if he leads the Browns to the playoffs and Super Bowl contender status while continuing to be a top-five NFL QB who is a three-time Pro Bowler and was the league passing yards leader in 2020. But I would have been very reluctant to make this trade and pay $230 million guaranteed to a player with major off-field issues considering the 22 active civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. And the NFL is investigating Watson for violating the league’s personal conduct policy so he could still face suspension.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam says the team has done a “comprehensive evaluation due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved…to provide the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision.” 

The Browns had better hope these civil suits are settled, or Watson is exonerated. Watson had better stay squeaky clean moving forward and do a lot of positive community work in Cleveland while playing great and leading the team to postseason success, or the Browns will live to regret this trade. 

2. Now the question is where Mayfield winds up since he’s on the trading block. Mayfield has played fairly well in two of his four seasons, but he is coming off an injury-riddled, less productive 2021 season. The Browns reportedly are seeking at least a first-round pick (to gain back one of the high picks given up in the Watson trade), and there are several teams potentially interested but perhaps at a lesser trade cost, including Seattle, Carolina, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. 

Two other potential suitors—New Orleans and Indianapolis– addressed their QB situation for 2022 this week when the Saints re-signed Jameis Winston and the Colts traded for Matt Ryan. Atlanta will carry a record $40 million dead money hit to their cap with Ryan gone so they signed Marcus Mariota for $9 million per year and probably can’t afford to take on Mayfield’s $19 million salary. 

I predict Mayfield will wind up in Seattle since they have the draft capital after the Russell Wilson trade to close a deal with Cleveland.

As the QB carousel spins, Jimmy Garoppolo (who is coming off shoulder surgery) remains a probable trade target as the 49ers apparently are looking to last year’s first-round pick (No. 3 overall) Trey Lance as their new starter. Plus, there are a handful of good prospects in next month’s draft—led by Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Liberty’s Malik Willis, and North Carolina’s Sam Howell– but it doesn’t appear any of them will go in the top five (and the Vikings would be wise to pick a QB in the second or third round to battle with Kellen Mond as Kirk Cousins’ possible heir apparent a year or two down the road).    

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl