PFF Names Viking among Top 5 Free Agents of 2022

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The much-maligned Minnesota Vikings defense was a huge disappointment during the 2022 season. Ed Donatell was relieved of duties after just one season with the club. So, it might be a little surprising a Vikings player was named as a top 5 free agent signing in 2022.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings had a knack for creating turnovers and showing up in big moments, which helped lead them to a 13-win season and a division title. A couple of good additions were added to the roster in free agency in Harrison Phillips and Za’Darius Smith, one of whom was named by Pro Football Focus among the top 5 free agent signings of 2022.

PFF Names Viking among Top 5 Free Agents of 2022

That man is the former Green Bay Packer Za’Darius Smith. Here is what PFF’s Brad Spielberger said about the Vikings edge rusher.

Smith missed almost the entirety of the 2021 season with the Green Bay Packers due to injury and reveled at the prospect of going up against his former team twice by staying in the NFC North. He clearly had some extra motivation after expressing displeasure with how his contract was handled at the end, which propelled him to a dominant start to the 2022 season. 

Through Week 10, Smith was lapping the field, as his 55 total quarterback pressures were nine more than the next-highest edge defender while his pass rush win rate and pressure rate both ranked top five. While he did slow down a bit to close out the year dealing with a knee injury, he undoubtedly earned every penny of the $10.25 million in cash he was paid for 2022. 

The interesting dilemma here will now be whether Smith or fellow Vikings edge defender Danielle Hunter is willing to play in 2023 without getting a raise. 

Brad Spielberger, Pro Football Focus

Smith’s First Season Impact

Smith came in and made an immediate impact. Although he did slow down, his PFF grade of 83.3 was a respectable 14th among edge defenders across the league.

In his debut season in Minnesota, he had a stat line of 44 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 5 pass deflections, 46 QB pressures, 24 QB hits, and 10 sacks.

Top 5 Free Agents
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A lingering knee injury did seem to slow him down in the second half of the season. Smith only registered half a sack in his last nine games. Although I don’t think that was the only factor. Teams seemed to prioritize stopping fellow edge rusher Hunter early in the season. It quickly became apparent leaving Smith with favorable one-on-one matchups wasn’t a good idea.

It also quickly became apparent that the Vikings relied almost exclusively on their top-tier edge rush duo for their pass rush. The Vikings defense failed to provide good coverage, particularly in the middle of the field — where the coverage often seemed nonexistent. That was the downfall of the Vikings defense this year. Hunter and Smith were being charged with doing too much too quickly.

The Future

Like many players on the Vikings roster, there are some question marks regarding Smith’s future. He’s not at the top of the list of players the Vikings should subtract. However, with a cap hit of just shy of $17 million in 2023 and $21.6 million in 2024, Minnesota will want to ensure they are getting the healthy Smith that dominated early in the season when next season starts.

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To fit Smith into the salary cap in 2022, his cap hit was just $3.1 million. He signed a three-year deal worth $42 million, at an average of $14 million yearly. That is cheap for a dominant edge rusher, as is Hunter’s $14.4 million-a-year contract. The idea both might want better contracts makes sense. I think the younger and better player is Hunter, and extending him would be a priority.

One thing is for sure: Smith positively impacted Minnesota in his first season. Both on the field as a player and off the field as a leader in the locker room, Smith quickly became a favorite among Vikings fans. He deserves his recognition as one of 2022’s top 5 free agents.

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