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5 Things to Know About New Vikings OLB Za'Darius Smith

OLB Za’Darius Smith
OLB Za’Darius Smith

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings continued to bolster their defense in free agency by agreeing to terms Tuesday with outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

The move adds an edge rusher to a group that has already signed nose tackle Harrison Phillips and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks as Minnesota plans to incorporate more 3-4 elements this season.

Smith has totaled 227 tackles (league stats), 53 tackles for loss, 44.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, seven passes defensed and two fumble recoveries in 91 NFL games (48 starts).

Here are five things to know about Smith.

1. Familiar with faces and 3-4

Smith will reunite with Vikings Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine, who was Green Bay's defensive coordinator from 2018-20. Minnesota's outside linebackers coach/pass rush specialist Mike Smith was Za'Darius Smith's position coach for the past three seasons.

The combination helped Za'Darius Smith record a career-high 13.5 sacks in 2019 and 12.5 more the following season. He earned Pro Bowl selections both years, as well as a Second-Team All-Pro designation from The Associated Press.

Smith missed all but 18 snaps of the 2021 season opener because of an injury. He returned and recorded a sack in Green Bay's Divisional Round loss to San Francisco.

Smith's time in a 3-4 goes back to the first four seasons of his career with Baltimore.

View photos of new Vikings OLB Za'Darius Smith who joined the team during free agency.

2. Border Battle Tested

Vikings fans have seen Smith impact four Border Battles and help Green Bay go 3-1 against Minnesota from 2019-20.

The greatest display occurred in December 2019 when Smith recorded 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and five quarterback hits to help the Packers clinch the NFC North and record their first win at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Smith's 3.5 sacks in that game are the most by a Packers player in a Border Battle since sacks became official in 1982. They also are tied with Sean McInerney, who recorded 3.5 for Chicago in a 1987 game when teams were using "replacement players" to keep the season going through a strike.

Four players — Reggie White (with 1988 Eagles), Simon Fletcher (with 1990 Broncos), Peter Boulware (with 2001 Ravens) and Leonard Little (with 2003 Rams) — recorded 4.0 sacks in a game against the Vikings.

3. Late start

Smith entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started just 16 of the 58 regular-season games he played for the Ravens but totaled 18.5 sacks, including 8.5 in 2018 when he started eight games.

The Packers inked Smith to be a starter during free agency in 2019, and he made them right, helping Green Bay win NFC North titles with Pro Bowl play before suffering his injury.

Smith's progression to becoming a starter may have resulted in part from him being relatively new to football. Although he grew up in Alabama, Smith focused on basketball at Greenville High School until trying the gridiron in his senior year.

Interestingly, he said in is University of Kentucky bio that his dream job (other than playing in the NFL) would be as the head football coach at his high school.

4. Quick climb

Smith accelerated his football career by attending East Mississippi Community College and helped the program go 12-0 and win the 2011 NJCAA National Championship.

The EMCC Lions went 8-2 the following season, and Smith was named Second-Team All-America by the NJCAA. ESPN rated him as the No. 2 defensive end and 10th overall JUCO prospect on his way to joining the Kentucky Wildcats in 2013 as a junior.

5. Athleticism runs in the family

Smith's Kentucky bio noted his older brother Bob Meeks played center at Auburn and for the Denver Broncos (eight games in 1993). A cousin, Davern Williams, appeared in three games for the New York Giants in 2004, and a niece, Kristi Mokube, played college basketball at Florida State.