The 4 Parts of Za’Darius Smith’s Odd Odyssey in Minnesota

Za’Darius Smith Breaking Packers Hearts
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Eight days ago, Za’Darius Smith’s brief tenure with the Minnesota Vikings ended after 14 months. He paired with Danielle Hunter in 2022 to formulate an impressive pass-rushing duo en route to a fancy 13-4 record.

But it ended with a trade to the Cleveland Browns for two 5th-Rounders. The Vikings also sent a 2025 6th-Rounder and 2025 7th-Round pick to Cleveland with Smith in the trade. Cleveland gained a soon-to-be 31-year-old EDGE rusher for pick swaps and $10 million in cap savings by the Vikings.

The 4 Parts of Za’Darius Smith’s Odd Odyssey in Minnesota

Here’s a look back at Smith’s odd odyssey in Minnesota.

1. Backing out on BAL

The 4 Parts of
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The Vikings weren’t ‘supposed’ to be able to land Smith in free agency last year. In March of 2022, his next destination felt like a done deal, nearing an agreement with the team that drafted him in 2015, the Baltimore Ravens.

But that fell through, Smith hit the free-agent circuit once again, and somehow became a Viking. The news was exhilarating for some Vikings faithful because Smith’s addition to the depth chart was the smoking-gun moment proving the 2022 Vikings were ‘in it to win it.’ At the time, a handful of eager fans were thirsty for a full rebuild with new management. The wish was not granted.

Smith represented the splashiest free-agent move of 2022 and strengthened the defense — on paper when the move was announced and in the regular season.

2. The Hype and Fabulous 10 Weeks

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A couple of months after Smith joined the Vikings, he told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen about the prospect of facing his former teammate Aaron Rodgers, “I can’t wait to get a chance to face them the first game and see that look on Aaron Rodgers’ face when he sees me on the other side of the ball. It’s going to be a, ‘It’s good to see you again, but now, it’s not at practice.'”

The hype was real — and then Smith backed it up.

He terrorized opponents, tallying 9.5 sacks in the first 10 weeks of 2022, and even flirted with Defensive Player of the Year contention. Smith and running mate Danielle Hunter manufactured instant chemistry, and all was well in the Vikings orbit.

From Week 1 to 10, the Vikings defense ranked 13th in the NFL per defensive EPA/Play. The Smith signing was paying dividends.

3. The Slow Down

Smith Be Back
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But then everything slowed down. Well, at least the sacks stopped.

From Weeks 11 to 18, Smith notched just 0.5 sacks, and fans wondered, “What’s the deal?” His pressures and hurries remained in the NFL’s Top 25. Yet, the flashy, highlight-reel stuff was kaput.

Correspondingly, along with an injury to defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, the Vikings defense dipped to 30th via the same EPA/Play metric from Week 11 to the Wildcard game that ended the season. A whimper, indeed.

4. The Goodbye Tweet

Smith the Subject
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On a March afternoon, just four days before free agency, Smith tweeted, “I just want to say ‘Thank you!’ to Skol Nation for an amazing season & experience! Thank you to all of my Teammates, Coaches & the entire Minnesota Vikings Organization! ?.”

And that was it. The tweet sealed the deal — he wasn’t putting the white-horned helmet on his noggin again.

Minnesota curiously didn’t release or trade Smith until 64 days later, but on May 12th, Adofo-Mensah shipped the once-promising Viking to Adofo-Mensah’s old employer, the Browns.

In the end, the ex-Green Bay Packer did the turncoat thing for one season.

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 Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

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