The Minnesota Vikings face more than a few major personnel questions as the NFL Draft approaches, including the future of one of their most talented defenders.
Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith asked out of his deal in March then pressed the issue on Twitter with a less than cryptic message indicating his time with the Vikings was over after just one season.
Minnesota declined Smith’s request, though a trade for draft capital appeared the logical path forward, especially after the team inked pass rusher Marcus Davenport to an eight-figure deal last month. But as Kevin Seifert of ESPN pointed out on Monday, April 3, Smith remains on the roster with nearly $10 million in salary guaranteed for 2023 due to the Vikings’ choice not to trade or release him ahead of a March 20 deadline.
If you were looking for places to create salary cap space, both Smith and [Danielle] Hunter would have been obvious candidates. Trading or releasing Smith before March 20 would have created $12.2 million in cap space, while extending Hunter’s contract would have significantly brought down his $13.1 million cap number for 2023. But the Vikings have done neither.
When he spoke to Minnesota reporters after signing his contract, Davenport said: “Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to fit yet.” Again, that isn’t by accident. While it’s not entirely out of the question that the Vikings envision a three-man rotation at edge rusher, with Davenport an upgrade over D.J. Wonnum, it sure seems likely that there is more to come at this position.
Vikings Can Trade Smith For Mid-Round Value in NFL Draft
Smith has been a Pro Bowler in three of the last four seasons, finishing with double-digit sacks in each of the three campaigns, per Pro Football Reference. That includes a 10-sack effort last season, in which he finished ninth in the voting for AP Comeback Player of the Year.
However, Smith suffered a knee injury that upended his production. He recorded just 1.5 sacks in the final 10 games of the year and missed one start. The knee problem follows a back issue that kept Smith sidelined for all but one regular season contest in 2021 when he was a member of the Green Bay Packers.
Smith will play next season at the age of 31 and remains under contract through 2024. It is likely he will seek a new deal with more years and more money if he is dealt, which complicates his trade value.
Maurice Moton of Bleacher Report contended on March 19 that Smith should be worth “at least” a mid-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
“Thus far, the club has held on to Smith, likely in hopes to find a trade partner for a three-time Pro Bowl player coming off a 10-sack season,” Moton wrote. “The Vikings should be able to get draft capital, a fourth-rounder at least, for Smith, who plays a premium position on defense.”
NFC North Rival Chicago Bears Possible Destination For Smith
The Bears have nearly $37.7 million in available salary cap space in 2023 and can easily absorb Smith’s cap hit. Chicago also owns a third-round pick (No. 64) and two fourth-round selections (No. 103 and No. 133) in this year’s draft.
As far as the timing of a trade goes, it would make the most sense for the Vikings to deal Smith ahead of the draft so they can utilize the return to improve immediately.
Beyond that, trading Smith prior to June 1 will save the team $12.15 million in salary cap space, per Over The Cap. Waiting until after June 1 increases those savings to just $13.8 million, which isn’t enough to justify pushing off a third- or fourth-round selection for an entire year.