Za’Darius Smith Departure Provides Opportunity

Outcry over
Oct 2, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) celebrates after a sack in the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL International Series game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

The Minnesota Vikings were going to be without Za’Darius Smith since he publicly announced his exit. With his departure now official, an opportunity opens up alongside Danielle Hunter.

Za’Darius Smith Departure Provides Opportunity

Last season the Minnesota Vikings took a gamble in signing Za’Darius Smith after he had done all but nothing the year prior for the Green Bay Packers. He talked a big game in wanting to rush Aaron Rodgers and get back at his former team, but the tenure simply didn’t last. He came out of the gate hot, slowed by midseason, and watched as his teammate Danielle Hunter picked up the slack.

Smith Departure
Nov 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) looks on during the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

Looking to parlay his resurgence into a new payday, the Vikings weren’t interested and instead created additional cap space while upgrading a pair of their future draft picks. With Smith gone from the roster, a new opportunity has presented itself.

For Hunter, the Vikings have long looked at him as among the best edge rushers in the league. Last season he racked up sacks despite being oddly utilized at times by defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. The hope would be that he’s avoiding pass coverage situations and more often pinning his ears back to track down the opposing quarterback under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores. While he was rarely dropped onto a potential pass catcher, Flores could focus on eliminating those situations entirely.

Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores takes over the team’s defense at an introductory press conference on February 15th, 2023, in Eagan, Minnesota.

Needing to take the pressure solely off Hunter’s shoulders, however, the next man will need to step up. Immediately, that will be former New Orleans Saints edge Marcus Davenport. Brought in by the Vikings this offseason, he will have a chance to start opposite Hunter. Entering his sixth season in the NFL, Davenport has started roughly half his 63 games. He has 21.5 sacks to his credit and broke out in a big way with nine during the 2021 season.

It would probably be unfair to envision an immediate matching of Smith’s production from Davenport, but he’ll be given every opportunity to do so. With so much talent in Hunter on the line with him, there could be more than a few situations where he is given somewhat of a free pass to the quarterback. What Davenport does with the opportunity remains to be seen, but generating a nice payday for himself is where this could go.

We could see this scenario present an additional opportunity for D.J. Wonnum. A 4th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Wonnum has been with the Vikings for a few seasons now. Coming out of South Carolina, he had pass-rushing tendencies, and we have only seen them in small bursts as a rotational talent.

Sep 25, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) looks on before the game against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Last season Wonnum racked up four sacks despite generating just a single start. It wasn’t a great follow-up to the eight sacks he provided in 2021, but he also was given 14 starts that season. With another year of maturation under his belt and having observed what Smith brought to the table, it could be an opportunity for the former Gamecock to secure his next payday.

The Vikings will need more from their defense this season to avoid an ugly form of regression. They can help the secondary by bringing down the quarterback, and developing another pass rusher to keep pressure off of Hunter is a must. The blueprint last year was to have Smith be that guy, but he wasn’t going to be a factor with his eyes elsewhere for 2023 anyways.

Whether it’s Wonnum or someone else, there is a hole to fill and a massive opportunity for someone on the Skol line to cash in.


Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.

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