Vikings Ink Pricey NFC Pass Rusher, Put Smith’s Future in Doubt

Za'Darius Smith

Getty The Vikings are on the hook for some of Za'Darius Smith's 2023 base salary after trading him to the Cleveland Browns, Mary Kay Cabot reported.

The Minnesota Vikings were busy on the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period, adding a pass rusher as a potential replacement for a three-time Pro Bowler.

Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported on Monday, March 13, that the Vikings had agreed in principal to a deal with edge rusher Marcus Davenport who was most recently a member of the New Orleans Saints.

“#Vikings agree to sign pass rusher Marcus Davenport, which could lead to the exit of Za’Darius Smith,” Tomasson wrote. “Davenport had nine sacks in 11 games for the Saints in 2021 but just a half sack in 15 games last year.”

The Vikings acquired Davenport at a bargain for exactly the reason Tomasson noted above — his major dip in production year-over-year from 2021 to 2022. Minnesota will sign the pass rusher to a one-year contract worth $13 million when the NFL free agency period officially opens on March 15.

Vikings Sign Davenport Under Market Value, Maintain Flexibility

Marcus Davenport, Saints

GettyOffensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton (left) and defensive end Marcus Davenport (right) of the New Orleans Saints walk off the field after a win over the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 9, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images)

The Saints selected Davenport out of the University of Texas-San Antonio with the No. 14 overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Davenport produced a breakout season during his fourth campaign in 2021, tallying 21 quarterback pressures, nine sacks and three forced fumbles, per Pro Football Reference. New Orleans had exercised the fifth-year option on the defensive end’s rookie contract the offseason prior, bringing him back to the team in 2022 at the cost of $9.55 million.

Even despite Davenport’s downward spiral last season in a contract year, Spotrac projected his market value this offseason north of $20 million annually over the span of a four-year deal. The Vikings didn’t end up paying near that price, nor committing to near that many years.

Instead Minnesota general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has afforded Davenport something of a prove-it deal in the NFC North Division, after which Davenport will hit free agency again and can re-up with the Vikings if both sides are willing. If not, he can seek a longer-term deal elsewhere.

The move also affords Minnesota some flexibility as they pay under market value for a formerly proven entity coming off of a bad season who, nevertheless, remains just 26 years old and in his prime.

Smith Looking For Release After One Season With Vikings

Za'Darius Smith, Vikings

GettyEdge rusher Za’Darius Smith of the Minnesota Vikings asked the team for his release on March 9. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

If Davenport can produce anything close to what he did in 2021, he should serve as a suitable replacement for Smith who requested his release from the Vikings last week.

Smith tallied 37 quarterback pressures and 10 sacks in 2022, earning his third trip to the Pro Bowl in four years. However, the 30-year-old edge rusher’s numbers and impact both dipped toward the end of the season.

Smith has two years remaining on his current contract and is set to count nearly $15.5 million against the salary cap in 2023, followed by a cap hit of $21.66 million two years from now. The Vikings can save more than $12 million against next year’s cap by releasing Smith prior to June 1.

With Davenport now on board and Danielle Hunter having returned to Pro-Bowl form in 2022 with 10.5 sacks of his own, the chances the Vikings move on from Smith have increased considerably.

The 28-year-old Hunter is set for free agency following next season and the Vikings are expected to extend him into the future. Employing Davenport on a one-year deal and moving Smith’s contract off the books will allow for more flexibility to make a long-term extension happen for Hunter.

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