The Za’Darius Smith Trade Was Part Of the Vikings’ Long-Term Strategy

Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When the Minnesota Vikings signed Za’Darius Smith last offseason, it was a partnership that helped both sides. The Vikings were eager to jump-start their pass rush, and Smith was looking to cash in as he entered his 30s. After a deal with the Baltimore Ravens fell through, the Vikings were there as a comfortable fall-back option Smith used to revitalize his career.

One year later, Smith wanted to cash in again, but the Vikings didn’t want to pay an aging edge rusher. The standoff led to Friday’s trade in which the Vikings sent Smith, a 2024 sixth-round pick, and a 2024 seventh-round pick to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a 2024 fifth-round pick and a 2025 fifth-round pick.

The return seems light after Smith ranked fifth in the NFL with 80 quarterback pressures last season. But the return is legitimate because the Vikings made the best out of a bad situation.

When the Vikings signed Smith, they did so with an abundance of caution. Smith was limited to two games in his final season with the Green Bay Packers but was still a productive player. With Green Bay wanting to free up playing time for Rashan Gary, Smith was sent to the open market but had trouble finding a suitor because of his back injury.

When the Ravens deal fell through, the Vikings stepped in and signed Smith to a three-year contract that made both sides happy. But like with many deals under Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, the Vikings got the short-term impact along with long-term flexibility.

Smith’s $1.45 million base salary was complemented by a per-game bonus that allowed the Vikings to save cap space and pay Smith as the season went along. Once Smith showed that he was healthy and productive, he wanted to go back to the negotiating table. The Vikings balked, which likely led to Smith posting his farewell on his social media account.

At this point, the Vikings could have just been done with this situation by releasing Smith, but that may have had consequences. Smith was going to head to the highest bidder, and with the Chicago Bears holding over $100 million in cap space and a roster that needed help, there was a great possibility that the Vikings would have to deal with Smith twice a year as an NFC North rival.

That led to the Vikings seeking a trade, but Smith’s tweet essentially tipped the Vikings’ hand. Everybody knew the Vikings were done with Smith as soon as he sent that tweet. This made the best option to wait Minnesota out and see if Smith would hit free agency, but the Vikings continued to take a patient approach.

When rumors of a guaranteed payout for Smith days after the start of the league year materialized, the Vikings held firm. When teams balked at giving up 2023 picks in exchange for Smith, the Vikings didn’t blink. When those same teams were reluctant to part with 2024 picks, Smith still remained on the roster.

Eventually, somebody was going to blink. In this case, that happened to be the Browns.

The Browns ranked 27th in sacks last season and signed former Viking Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo in free agency. Both players were projected to be defensive linemen, and the Browns needed a true edge rusher to replace Jadeveon Clowney.

After focusing on the offensive and defensive lines during the draft, the Browns finally hit the trade market to solve the problem. Cleveland not only gave up the draft capital to acquire Smith, but they also increased his base salary to $9.45 million – a number the Vikings couldn’t afford to match.

Instead, the Vikings continued their objective of clearing cap space not only for 2023 but beyond. Trading Smith cleared up $12.1 million in cap space, which gives the Vikings $13.2 million heading into next season. In the short term, this money can be used for a last-minute addition in free agency or to sign the remaining members of their draft class, but it has bigger benefits down the road.

Consider that the Vikings will be doling out lucrative extensions in the coming months for Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson. The Vikings also have to find a way to extend Christian Darrisaw in the spring of 2024. Mix in the potential for a Kirk Cousins extension and there was a high unlikelihood that Smith was going to remain on the Vikings’ roster.

The rest of the league had to see this coming, and that’s why Smith wasn’t traded until the calendar hit mid-May. While Smith’s departure leaves questions about the pass rush for 2023, the Vikings’ offseason has been more about setting them up for success in 2024.

That’s why this trade may not look good now but could make the Vikings winners down the road.

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