Vikings’ Za’Darius Smith Picks Up Where Everson Griffen Excelled, Analyst Says

Za'Darius Smith Ravens

Getty Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates after a sack during the 1st quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ersat Lambeau Field on January 22, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Za’Darius Smith left quite an impression on Minnesota Vikings fans back in 2019.

In his first year with the Green Bay Packers, Smith was a menace in the Vikings backfield at U.S. Bank Stadium, where he tallied 3.5 sacks on Kirk Cousins in Week 16 to effectively clinch the NFC North title in a 23-10 win for Green Bay.

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Smith punctuated his first Pro Bowl campaign with that performance. Upon making his first trip to the NFL’s all-star game, he connected with Minnesota’s top pass-rusher, Danielle Hunter, who prophesized the two could join forces someday.

“Just knowing him and going into the Pro Bowl [after] 2019, I got a chance to sit down with him and talk to him,” said Smith in an introductory press conference after signing a two-year contract with the Vikings on March 22. “And he was like, ‘Man, you never know, Z. We may end up on the same team.’ And it’s crazy that I’m saying this, but he really said that.

“He actually signed a jersey, and it has that on the jersey,” Smith added. “So yeah, big shout out to Danielle Hunter, man. I’m happy to be here to get a chance to play with him.”

The Athletic’s Arif Hasan appraised the acquisition for Smith, gathering insight from several NFL analysts, including one who likened Smith to fan favorite Everson Griffen.

However, the “lateral move” from Griffen to Smith doesn’t guarantee the Vikings defense will find its prior form.

Analyst Likens Smith to Griffen

Smith, 30, is a pass-rusher in his prime ready to revamp Minnesota’s defense after a pair of troubling years.

The Vikings posted the second-worst cumulative Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade without Hunter in the second half of the 20212 season. Even with Hunter, they ranked 29th among NFL teams in the measure, per The Athletic.

Smith hopes to change that, already resurrected the Purple People Eaters’ slogan “Meet at the Quarterback,” slogan upon his arrival to Minnesota.

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But whether signing Smith was the right move remains to be seen after the two-time Pro Bowler missed 16 games in 2021 with a back injury. Smith, when healthy, rose to NFL stardom, tallying an average of 13 sacks in 2019 and 2020.

However, if Smith plays a full season, he can remain in the upper echelon of NFL pass-rushers.

An offensive and defensive line specialist for Establish the Run, Bleacher Report’s offensive line scout and a scouting coordinator for OL Masterminds, Brandon Thorn told Hasan that he sees Smith as a similar fit for the Vikings that Griffen once filled.

“I honestly thought it was somewhat of a lateral move compared to the player Griffen was,” Thorn told Hasan. “Griffen is a little more nuanced in his approach as a rusher and more effective on the edge, whereas I think Smith is better on stunts and reduced inside rushing over guards, winning predominantly with power, quickness and hand-fighting skills.”

Smith’s technique and ability to anticipate the snap are similar to Griffen, however, he’ll likely be moved inside often after showing an ability to get to the quarterback of the NFL’s highest rates from the interior.

Bend Not a Major Issue With Smith

Back injuries on edge rushers are often of serious concern due to the position asking some of the game’s largest players to bend and turn the corner on opposing tackles.

However, Smith’s bend has never been his calling card.

“He uses his feet well to set up his rush with stutter steps and hard jab stabs to freeze and manipulate OL during their pass set,” Pro Football Focus analyst John Owning told Hasan. “He also mixes the tempo of his rushes to keep OL guessing. He also has a keen eye for pass-rush angles to put pressure on opposing tackles and take tight paths to the QB despite lacking otherworldly bend and speed.”

Smith’s back will still be tasked to hold up for a 17-game regular season, but any concerns over if he’s lost some bend are not nearly as detrimental to his pass-rush ability.

In 2020, Smith finished with the fourth-highest True Sack Rate, which measures how edge rushers earn sacks. Smith made opportunities for himself, tallying the fifth-most “high-quality” sacks. Eight of his 12.5 sacks were from the interior defensive line, where he’s shown to win hand-battles to knock guards off balance and bulldoze his way through the offensive interior.

The Vikings found success in pressuring Drew Brees in the 2019 NFC Wild Card round by lining up Griffen in the defensive interior. He tallied 1.5 sacks in a pivotal playoff win.

And now, with one of the best pass-rusher in the interior to pair with Hunter’s edge expertise, Minnesota could have the NFL’s top pass-rushing tandem.

Health remains the only concern.

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