Vikings Keep Pro Bowler in the Dark After He Puts His Future in Question

Kevin O'Connell, Vikings

Getty Head coach Kevin O'Connell of the Minnesota Vikings looks on during a game against the Chicago Bears in January 2023.

Minnesota Vikings edge rusher Za’Darius Smith still is unsure about his future in Minnesota.

After earning the third Pro Bowl nod of his career and first with the Vikings this past season, Smith put his Eagan, Minnesota, up for sale last week — putting his future into question.

KSTP’s Darren Wolfson revealed on a February 23 episode of the SKOR North podcast that Smith’s representation said that it’s merely a move to upgrade after his first year in Minnesota — although they have not promised his return yet amid many questions this offseason.

“I’m told the home is outdated. Why he ever bought it in the first place last May is beyond me. It’s possible he stays. He’s just looking for an upgrade,” Wolfson said. “Maybe he ends up getting released or traded? He doesn’t know. His camp doesn’t know.”

Smith, who deleted all team-related photos from his Instagram this offseason, remains in limbo if the Vikings intend to keep him for the final year of his contract. Minnesota needs to clear over $24 million in cap space before March 15, which will require several veterans to either be released or restructure their contracts.

Smith, like many NFLers, snowbirds to warmer weather in the offseason and likely won’t begin his house search until his future is confirmed — be it in Minnesota or elsewhere.

Za’Darius Smith’s Future May Hinge on Danielle Hunter’s Contract Negotiations

Last offseason, Danielle Hunter restructured his contract to free up cap space to land Smith in free agency. The Pro Bowl duo proved to be two of the league’s top edge rushers, combining for 148 pressures in the regular season, the most by any pass-rush duo. Smith ranked seventh in Pro Football Focus’ top 101 players from the 2022 season, while Hunter finished eighth on the list.

But after leading the league with 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in the first seven games of the season, Smith faded late in the season. Dealing with knee issues in the second half of the schedule, Smith tallied just 1.5 sacks in the final 10 games of the regular season.

That disparity has drawn scrutiny, however, Smith was still consistently tallying pressures at the quarterback — a more reliable statistic when it comes to an edge rushers performance.

Smith will be 31 this offseason, and while he showed flashes of why he was selected to his third Pro Bowl this season, the Vikings must evaluate if he is worth his contract, which ranks 22nd among edge rushers — especially with the cap-saving potential it presents.

Smith’s contract offers the most cap savings of any veteran player if he is cut or traded before June 1. The Vikings would only have to eat $3.3 million in dead cap by cutting Smith, creating $12.2 million in cap space in time for free agency, per Over The Cap.

Meanwhile, Hunter, who is looking for a contract extension entering the final year of his deal, may need to see some of those cap savings up front after putting the team first last season to get Smith.

Another consideration is how deep the upcoming edge rusher draft class is and what introducing a new starter through the draft may bring the team.

Za’Darius Smith is an Ideal Fit Under Brian Flores

While the business side of the NFL makes Smith’s future in Minnesota appear to be a coinflip, he may be a valuable piece that new defensive coordinator Brian Flores would vouch to keep.

In an introductory media conference on February 15, Flores described his hopes of building a defense around versatile players.

“I’m big on versatility. Guys being able to play multiple spots,” Flores said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to get them coached up to play those multiple spots. We’ll cast a wide net to see what we do best, and we’ll try to highlight the things our players do well.”

Flores’ comments help Smith’s case of staying as he’s one of the most versatile edge rushers in the NFL. Nearly half of Smith’s 80 pressures this season came from the interior, per PFF.

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