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The Vikings Competitive Rebuild Isn’t Possible Without Za’Darius Smith

He should be a part of the plan if the Vikings want to stay atop the NFC North

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

Za’Darius Smith is the exact kind of player a rebuilding team would cut. He’s on the wrong side of 30, he’s been injury prone the last few years, and his production took a nosedive in the second half of the season. On top of all that, Za’Darius wants a pay raise and has asked to be released.

Yet, the Minnesota Vikings front office is refusing to budge. Za’Darius Smith is the Vikings' best pure pass rusher, who is a perfect fit in Brian Flores’ blitz-happy defense. Whereas someone like Danielle Hunter would need more time to adjust to playing in a 3-4, Za’Darius could hit the ground running. Minnesota also has Smith under contract for two more years on a very team-friendly deal. This is why it makes absolutely zero sense from a roster construction standpoint to cut him and get nothing in return from it.

More importantly, if the Vikings decided to release Za’Darius Smith they would no longer be in a “competitive rebuild” – they would just be rebuilding. Cutting one of your best players would signal that you’re ready to initiate a complete teardown of the roster. That path doesn’t make sense for a team that went 13-4 and won the NFC North.

At least the Vikings can justify moving on from Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, and Cam Dantzler. Kendricks struggled in coverage last year, allowing a 100.3 passer rating. Adam Thielen hasn’t registered a 1,000-yard season since 2018. Although the Vikings waiving Cam Dantzler was puzzling to some, he always seemed to be falling down the depth chart. Bashaud Breeland started over him in 2021, and this year Duke Shelley took his job later in the season and never looked back.

None of those players in their current state contribute to winning the same way a higher-echelon player like Za’Darius Smith does. Mid-way through the season, Za’Darius Smith had the second-most sacks in the league. Although his sack numbers weren’t as impressive down the stretch, He still finished the season ranking 9th in total pressures. Danielle Hunter wasn’t too far behind, ranking 13th in total pressures. Under Ed Donatell, the Vikings blitzed at a 18.9% rate. Just imagine how different those numbers would look, now that the Vikings have a defensive coordinator who’s willing to be a lot more aggressive rushing the passer.

The fact of the matter is that Za’Darius Smith is still a highly productive player. Even if the Vikings wanted to move on from him, the remaining depth at the position would leave a lot to be desired. Patrick Jones and D.J. Wonnum have shown flashes here and there, but they’re merely rotation players at this stage of their careers. Maybe they’ll end up being good, but the Vikings shouldn’t expect either of them to play at a Pro Bowl level right away.

The Vikings could look to sign a pass rusher in free agency. However, I highly doubt they’ll find a suitable replacement in this year’s free agent class. The best free agent 3-4 edge rushers include Leonard Floyd and Yannick Ngakoue. Both of these players are worse than Za’Darius Smith, and both will end up getting paid more than him. Za’Darius knows he’s better than this year’s crop of free agents and is understandably trying to cash in while he still can.

Minnesota could also draft his replacement early, but that would be a poor use of a first-round pick. This is a very deep draft class for edge rushers, and the Vikings have a lot of positions to fill. I think they’d be better off selecting an inside linebacker or a center. Those positions are much more scarce, and you can always trade up for an edge rusher or a receiver should one fall far enough down in the draft. If the Vikings wait until the third round or later to draft Za’Darius’ replacement, that likely means whoever the team selects won’t be ready to start right away.

Regardless of how the Vikings decide to approach replacing Za’Darius Smith in 2023, the depth at EDGE, and the team as a whole, will be worse off. The whole point of a competitive rebuild is to retool the roster by adding young talent, while still competing for a division title. The key to doing that is replacing the team’s aging veterans in a very methodical manner. Before any player is released the team must already have a suitable replacement, or be committed to adding one in the same offseason. The Vikings replaced Eric Kendricks with Brian Asamoah, Adam Thielen with KJ Osborn, and Cam Danztler with Akayleb Evans.

One potential solution would be for the Vikings to restructure Za’Darius Smith’s contract so that he gets all of his guaranteed money remaining on his deal in 2023, and is allowed to hit free agency in 2024. That gives him the opportunity to earn more money in a contract year, and it buys the Vikings more time to draft and develop his replacement.

The Vikings have created a ton of cap space by cutting Kendricks and Thielen and that brings flexibility in future years. However, they need to be careful and not rip off the band-aids too fast, or the roster will lose most of its lifeblood. Keeping certain veterans like Za’Darius Smith would allow the Vikings to continue leaning into the competitive side of the rebuild.