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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Looks at How Za'Darius Smith Fits in New Vikings Defense

There's been lots of excitement – both inside the Vikings organization and out – around Minnesota's signing Tuesday of outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

How will Smith fit into the Vikings defense under new Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell? Arif Hasan of The Athletic took a close look at that question and wrote the following:

Za'Darius Smith has extensive experience in 3-4 systems, though this particular one is new to him. Easing the transition will be [outside linebackers coach] Mike Smith and [Assistant Head Coach] Mike Pettine, who should be able to fine-tune the system to fit what the pass-rusher does best.

Hasan said that lining up opposite Danielle Hunter "should help both edge defenders and could lead to even better pressure numbers."

Because of injuries, Smith and Hunter are both gambles at the position, however, and that's one reason both can fit under the cap. Neither played a full 2021; Hunter played seven games and Smith just one.

While both have injury concerns, their most recent stretches of play showcased high-level, borderline elite production. If they can continue at that level, it would be tough for opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out on time, which would help the Vikings depleted secondary.

Hasan also projected Smith's impact on the 2022 Vikings, starting with the fact that Minnesota "might not be pigeonholed into drafting an edge rusher early and will have the ability to develop their roster of young pass rushers more organically."

With recent mid-round draft picks like D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson along with late-round selection Kenny Willekes, there's a lot of potential there if the Vikings can take their time. Meanwhile, they have an instant impact up front that should make life tough for opposing offenses. Both Hunter and Smith bring high-level run defense to go with their elite pass-rush capability.

Not only that, Smith's contract comes a little cheaper than pass rushers tend to cost, which should give Minnesota some flexibility as it continues to manage its stressed salary cap. For now, the Vikings front seven only needs an interior defensive lineman with pass-rush capability to go along with Dalvin Tomlinson and new signing Harrison Phillips.

View photos of Vikings OLB Za'Darius Smith touring TCO Performance Center and getting introduced to the team for the first time.

Jordan Hicks listed among 9 'most underrated' free agency signings

Smith isn't the only free agent Minnesota has added to its defense, as last week the Vikings signed defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Jordan Hicks.

CBS Sports' Cody Benjamin recently highlighted the nine free agency signings across the league he believes are the most underrated, and he included Hicks in the grouping. Benjamin wrote:

Arizona spent years trying to replace Hicks with younger alternatives, but he refused to come off the field, overcoming an injury-riddled finish with the Eagles to serve as one of the Cardinals steadiest all-around defenders. Approaching 30, he's not a freak athlete, but he makes for a tremendous on- and off-field fit alongside Eric Kendricks and behind a restocked D-line.

The other NFC North addition spotlighted by Benjamin was Detroit's signing of wide receiver DJ Chark, who previously played for Jacksonville. The Vikings of course will face the Lions twice this season, so it's worth noting what Benjamin had to say about their newest wideout.

Why a half-dozen other teams didn't match or eclipse the Lions offer is beyond us. At a cheaper rate than guys like Will Fuller, Curtis Samuel and Nelson Agholor, the 25-year-old Chark gives Detroit a legitimate downfield threat who should only be on the rise after an injury-riddled two seasons. Even without steady QB play in Jacksonville, he proved he can be a No. 1.

PFF tabs 'perfect fit' for Minnesota in 2022 NFL Draft

Though the Vikings have made some noteworthy moves, they haven't been at the top of league for splashy – or overly expensive – free agency transactions.

Analytics site Pro Football Focus recently suggested "perfect fits" in the upcoming NFL Draft for teams that "did not spend big in free agency."

PFF's Sam Monson opined Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie as the best fit for the Vikings, who are slated to have the 12th overall draft pick. Monson wrote:

At Pick No. 12 overall, there's a chance Minnesota has a shot at the top two players at the position in Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner from Cincinnati or Derrick Stingley, Jr., out of LSU. If those players are both gone, Trent McDuffie may actually prove to be the perfect scheme fit.

McDuffie put up phenomenal tape in college, but he doesn't tick the measurables boxes that a lot of teams need to see at cornerback. He checked in at 5-foot-11, 193 pounds and with arms that are under 30 inches in length. Those features would often get a cornerback branded as a slot-only type for certain NFL teams, but new Head Coach Kevin O'Connell comes from a defense in Los Angeles that got high-end play out of smaller cornerbacks.

Darious Williams just signed a big-money contract in free agency off the back of his Rams production, and he is shorter and lighter than McDuffie, albeit with slightly longer arms.

Ultimately, if the Vikings trust the tape, they could grab a player who didn't give up a touchdown in his final two seasons and allowed a meager 52.1 NFL passer rating into his coverage over that time.