The Vikings Are Hoping Marcus Davenport Is Za'Darius Smith In More Ways Than One

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

During the middle of a predictable offseason, the Minnesota Vikings surprised many people by signing Marcus Davenport.

Davenport’s signing effectively signaled the end of Za’Darius Smith’s time in Minnesota. Therefore, the two edge rushers will be linked throughout the upcoming season. But Davenport’s signing was just as much about the future as it is about the present, meaning that the Vikings are hoping that he can fill Smith’s shoes in more ways than one.

When comparing Smith and Davenport, the former has a huge advantage in terms of production. Smith finished fifth among edge rushers last season with 80 quarterback pressures, and his pass-rusher productivity rating of 9.7 ranked 22nd, according to Pro Football Focus. Smith also has the benefit of a track record of long-term production, notching 10 or more sacks in three of the past four seasons.

By comparison, Davenport has never had double-digit sacks in a season. The closest he came was nine during the 2021 season. He also is coming off a season where he had just half a sack despite appearing in 15 games with the New Orleans Saints. Even if you have a bitter taste in your mouth after Smith was slowed by a midseason knee injury, Smith had almost as many quarterback pressures (32) in his final seven games as Davenport (34) had the entire season.

So what the Vikings are doing? While Davenport could benefit from a fresh start, it’s hard to imagine he’d reach Smith’s heights. Therefore, his $13 million salary a bit perplexing, especially when Minnesota lacks a viable insurance plan behind him.

In a worst-case scenario, Davenport isn’t effective or succumbs to his lengthy injury history. That could leave the Vikings trying to make Patrick Jones II or D.J. Wonnum into a starter, or throwing UDFA Andre Carter II into the game before he’s ready – provided he makes the team out of training camp.

For as much as this deal is about 2023, it may have more of an impact long term. The Vikings signed Davenport to a one-year deal because he carried several red flags. But Davenport’s situation is similar to what Smith was dealing with after his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

Smith began his career as a role player and collected 17 pressures on 248 pass-rushing snaps during his rookie year in 2018. While his PFF grade never got above 70, his pressure totals improved in each season until he collected 61 pressures and 8.5 sacks in his final season in Baltimore.

Za’Darius Smith’s performance grabbed the attention of Mike Smith and Mike Pettine, who were serving as the Green Bay Packers’ outside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, respectively. In an effort to bolster their defense, the Packers bit hard, signing Z to a four-year, $66 million contract in free agency.

It was money well spent for the Packers. Za’Darius Smith erupted in his first season in Green Bay. His 105 pressures led all edge rushers and his 13.5 sacks were a career-high. Smith collected 12.5 sacks in 2020 and played a huge role in helping Green Bay reach back-to-back NFC Championship games.

Za’Darius Smith was a star in Green Bay, but he also felt like he had outperformed his contract. At 28 years old, the Packers didn’t want to extend him past his prime. As a result, he sat out most of the 2021 season with a back injury, which eventually led to his release. The move cost Green Bay $12.4 million in dead money, but the Packers still benefitted from two years of elite production.

The Packers let Pettine and Mike Smith go following the 2021 season. Pettine latched on with the Vikings as a defensive consultant for Kevin O’Connell, and they hired Mike Smith as the outside linebackers coach. That paved the way for Za’Darius Smith to sign with the Vikings.

Za’Darius Smith played well early in the season, but his second half of the season and financial demands eventually led to another divorce. While it was no surprise to the Vikings, they still needed to find a replacement, which led Mike Smith and Pettine to recommend Davenport.

Davenport’s production isn’t great, but it’s also similar to Za’Darius Smith’s in Baltimore. While Davenport eclipsed 500 snaps in a season just once due to injuries, he posted only one PFF grade under 70 in his rookie season. During his career year in 2021, Davenport ranked sixth among all edge rushers with a 88.8 PFF grade despite only generating 42 pressures.

Still, there’s reason to be concerned about Davenport’s production in New Orleans. Were the Saints using him improperly? Was he out of position as a down lineman? Is he better suited for an attacking 3-4 scheme? And – most importantly – can Pettine and Mike Smith get something out of him that New Orleans’ coaching staff could not?

When the Packers’ signed Za’Darius Smith, it cost them a ton of money to find out what he had to offer. In Davenport’s case, it’s a short-term deal with little risk. If Davenport doesn’t pan out, the Vikings can eat $6.8 million over the next four years and move on to their next project.

While that carries some risk, it also could serve as a benefit. If Davenport becomes a valid Za’Darius Smith replacement, the Vikings can bake that money into his next deal, giving them the type of flexibility that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah seeks in his contracts.

Davenport isn’t guaranteed to become the next Za’Darius Smith, but his production suggests that it’s within the range of possibility. If he can come close to his predecessor’s production, this signing could be a big win for the Vikings and another step toward competing in 2023 and beyond.

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