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Zulgad’s Roundup: Vikings hoping to have elite pass rush with addition of Za’Darius Smith

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Jan 22, 2022; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) celebrates after sacking San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (not pictured) in the first quarter during a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings could feature one of the NFL’s best pass rushes next season with Danielle Hunter being joined by free agent acquisition Za’Darius Smith. Smith, an outside linebacker with 44.5 sacks in seven seasons, signed a three-year contract on Tuesday that reportedly is worth $42 million and includes incentives that could pay him more than $47 million.

That will pair Smith in the Vikings’ new 3-4 base defense with Hunter, who will go from being a 4-3 left end to standing up opposite Smith. Field Yates of ESPN reported the two former SEC rivals — Hunter with LSU and Smith with Kentucky — already are working together and that Hunter’s $18 million roster bonus was converted into a signing bonus to create $13.5 million in 2022 salary cap space and help the Vikings land Smith.

The Vikings explored trading Hunter this offseason but it’s now clear he will be be staying put. Smith, who spent the past three seasons with the Packers after beginning his career in Baltimore, played in only one regular-season in 2021 before having back surgery in September that sidelined him until the playoffs. He did return to record a sack in the Packers’ playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Hunter had six sacks in seven games last season before being lost after tearing a pectoral muscle. That came after he missed all of 2020 because of a herniated disc. The Vikings are banking on Hunter and Smith returning to their pre-injury forms. Hunter, who will turn 28 in October, had 14.5 sacks and did not miss a start in both 2018 and 2019. Smith, who will turn 30 in September, started all 16 games in 2019 and 2020 and had 13.5 and 12.5 sacks, respectively.

Hunter and Smith were both taken in the 2015 draft, with the former going 88th overall in the third round and the latter going 122nd in the fourth. Smith was selected by Baltimore and spent his first four seasons with the Ravens, recording 18.5 sacks in 58 games and 16 starts. He signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Packers in 2019 and had 26 sacks, 60 quarterback hits and five forced fumbles in his first two seasons. Smith was named to the Pro Bowl each of those years and was a second-team All Pro selection from the Associated Press.

The Packers released Smith this month in a salary cap move and  initially agreed to a four-year, $35 million deal to return to the Ravens, But Smith changed his mind after seeing what elite pass rushers Von Miller (six years, $120 million, $51.5 million guaranteed in Buffalo) and Chandler Jones (three years, $52.5 million, $34 million guaranteed in Las Vegas) got on the open market.

Smith will be playing for new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell but he is familiar with a couple of the Vikings’ assistants. Assistant head coach Mike Pettine was Smith’s defensive coordinator in Green Bay from 2018 to 2020, and outside linebackers coach/pass rush specialist Mike Smith served as Za’Darius’ position coach for the past three seasons.

The move almost certainly closes the door on free agent linebacker Anthony Barr returning to the Vikings for a ninth season with the team.

  • Smith had a monster game against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in December 2019, recording 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and five quarterback hits as Green Bay clinched the NFC North title.
  • The addition of Smith means the Vikings are almost certain to take a cornerback with the 12th pick in the April draft. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings also bring back veteran Patrick Peterson, who spent last season with the team. Peterson has voiced a desire to return to Minnesota.
  • Smith joins a list of former Packers who have played for the Vikings. Quarterback Brett Favre (2009-10) is the most famous. Others include safety Darren Sharper, kicker Ryan Longwell, linebacker Desmond Bishop and wide receivers Robert Ferguson and Greg Jennings.  Wide receiver Javon Walker also spent time with the Vikings but never appeared in a regular-season game.
  • Cornerback Trae Waynes, who left the Vikings to a sign a three-year, $42 million contract with the Bengals in 2020, was released by the team this week after making $31 million in two seasons. Waynes appeared in five regular-season games in that time and did not play in the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl this season. Cincinnati saves $10.8 million in salary cap space. Waynes was the 11th pick in the 2015 draft by the Vikings and started 53 of the 74 games in which he played.
  • With the Vikings’ decision to bring back Sean Mannion, in part because he and Kirk Cousins have a good relationship, it will be interesting to see if Kellen Mond becomes the No. 2 quarterback and Mannion drops to No. 3, or if Mannion is again Cousins’ primary backup.
  • The New York Islanders were expected to move former Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck before Monday’s trade deadline, but instead signed him and winger Zach Parise to contract extensions. Clutterbuck, who spent his first six seasons with the Wild before being traded in June 2013 for Nino Niederreiter, received a two-year extension. The 34-year-old has six goals and nine assists in 59 games. Parise, 37, was bought out by the Wild last offseason and signed with the Islanders. He has eight goals and 16 assists in 60 games this season after scoring seven goals and 18 points in 45 games last season. New York had high hopes this season but entered Tuesday’s games 19 points out of a playoff spot.
  • The Wild sent center Victor Rask to Seattle in exchange for future consideration before the trade deadline. Rask, 29, had two goals and eight assists in 10 games for the Iowa Wild this season. He also had five goals and eight assists with the big club. The Kraken assigned the 2011 second-round pick by Carolina to Charlotte of the AHL. Former Wild general manager Paul Fenton obtained Rask in a trade for Niederreiter in January 2019.