Packers Rival Hosts Za’Darius Smith to Free-Agent Visit

Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers

Getty Za'Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates forcing a turn over against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at Levi's Stadium on November 05, 2020 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Green Bay Packers decided to say goodbye to Za’Darius Smith this offseason, but it turns out the edge rusher may not be going too far.

Smith verbally agreed to a new contract on March 16 with the Baltimore Ravens, the franchise that drafted him, but then backed off before signing it. Five days later, Smith headed north for a visit with the Minnesota Vikings. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero broke the news of Smith’s meeting in Minneapolis Monday.

“Former #Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith is headed to Minnesota today for a visit with the #Vikings, per sources,” Pelissero tweeted. “Smith’s original deal with the #Ravens fell apart. Could he stay in the NFC North instead?”

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Smith’s Familiarity With Vikings’ Staff May Help Get Deal Done

Za'Darius Smith, Kirk Cousins

GettyFormer Green Bay Packers edge rusher Za’Darius Smith chases down Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins during a game on December 23, 2019.

The pass rusher has some familiarity with the staff in Minnesota, which could increase his odds of landing there.

Mike Smith served as the Packers’ outside linebackers (OLB) for all of Za’Darius Smith’s three seasons in Green Bay before joining the Vikings as their OLB coach/pass rush specialist this offseason. Mike Pettine, now assistant head coach in Minnesota, was also the Packers’ defensive coordinator during Smith’s first two seasons in Green Bay.

Smith had a great deal of success as a Packer under the Pettine regime, amassing totals of 60 quarterback hits, 29 tackles for loss, 26 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2019-20 and earning trips to the Pro Bowl after each campaign.

However, Smith appeared in only one game for Green Bay in 2021 after he was sidelined by a back injury that ultimately required surgery. He did return for the team’s brief postseason run, tallying a sack in the Packers’ Divisional Round Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Smith’s Decision to Reverse Course on Ravens Came as Surprise

Za'Darius Smith Ravens

GettyOutside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, celebrates after a sack during the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field on January 22, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

That Smith ended up departing Green Bay did not come as a shock. After the Packers fell to the Niners in the playoffs, Smith posted to Instagram what appeared to be simultaneously a thank-you and goodbye message to Packers fans.

It wasn’t clairvoyance that offered Smith a clear vision of the future as much as it was an understanding of the franchise’s salary cap realities. Green Bay was in the midst of trying to bring back Aaron Rodgers along with an offensive roster talented and familiar enough to keep the four-time MVP quarterback happy. Parting ways with Smith offered more than $15 million in cap relief, which made it a convenient move in the context of Green Bay’s short- and long-term futures.

What proved much more of a surprise was Smith backing out of his verbal agreement with the Ravens. The OLB had been linked to Baltimore and the Cleveland Browns since the start of the free agency period, per Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.

Then on March 16, the official opening of NFL free agency, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Smith had agreed to a four-year, $35 million contract with the Ravens. The deal was worth up to $50 million with incentives. One day later, however, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Smith had a change of heart and would remain a free agent.

Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic surmised that Smith saw deals being offered to other premium pass rushers in the NFL —  Von Miller, $120 million over six years with the Buffalo Bills; Chandler Jones, $52.5 million over three years with the Las Vegas Raiders; and Preston Smith, $52.5 million over four years with the Packers — and decided he could get more money elsewhere.

If that elsewhere turns out to be Minnesota, the Packers will be seeing a lot more of their former pass rusher than they originally thought after releasing him earlier this month. Smith isn’t likely to prove a welcome sight either, especially if he ends up playing opposite Danielle Hunter. Another of the league’s top edge rushers when healthy, the Vikings recently decided to keep Hunter by paying his $18 million roster bonus Sunday.

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