'It felt like home': Vikings sign former Packers edge rusher Za'Darius Smith

Za’Darius Smith stepped foot on the Minnesota Vikings campus at TCO Performance Center in Eagan on Monday and said it felt like home.

The former Packers' edge rusher/linebacker spent the better part of the last three seasons terrorizing Kirk Cousins and other NFC North quarterbacks. Tuesday, the Vikings announced they’ve agreed to terms with Smith on a three-year deal that's reportedly worth up to $47 million after incentives.

Two of his biggest reasons for coming to Minnesota were Mike Pettine and Mike Smith, coaches now on Kevin O'Connell's staff that he worked with during his time in Green Bay.

"Just the team, just coming into the building it just felt like family. It just felt like home to me. They came in with open arms, and I loved it," Smith said.

O’Connell said Pettine and Smith "stood on a table" to get Za’Darius Smith to Minnesota.

When healthy, his numbers don’t lie. He's one of the most effecitve edge rushers in the NFL. Smith started 32 games for the Packers between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, both Pro Bowl years, and had a combined 26 sacks. Smith played just one regular season game in 2021, missing most of the year after suffering a back injury while in the weight room. He had a bulging disc, and returned four months after surgery. He practiced for three weeks before playing 18 defensive snaps in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He had one sack in that game.

Smith is one of five players in the NFL to post two seasons of at least 12.5 sacks in the last three years. The others? Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, Trey Hendrickson and Cameron Jordan. Smith was Second Team All-Pro in 2020.

"What Z has put on tape through his whole career is the ability to affect the passer. Sometimes you can just turn him loose. I’ve watched him end of a lot of football games with his ability to go get the quarterback," O’Connell said.

Pairing Smith with Danielle Hunter, who received an $18 million roster bonus on Sunday, was an opportunity Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had to capitalize on in his first season as Vikings’ general manager.

"We thought Za’Darius was a unique opportunity for a lot of different reasons. First and foremost, he’s a proven player with an extensive track record in this league," Adofo-Mensah said. "I think he’s extra motivated to resume his position among the league’s best, where he belongs."

Adofo-Mensah joked he’s going to need a rib protector around Smith. He’s aggressive in his handshakes and hugs, and his energy is infectious.

Smith first met Hunter at the 2019 Pro Bowl. Hunter gave him a signed jersey and told him, "You never know Z, we may end up on the same team."

Smith took a full tour of TCO Performance Center on Monday, which included a visit to the Vikings Museum. It was there he saw a mural of the "Purple People Eaters," and was told Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen were all selected to the Pro Bowl in 1969.

Smith tweeted out Monday night, "Meet at the quarterback," in homage of that group.

"I was like no way, it said Purple People Eaters. I was like ‘OK, meet at the quarterback,’ that’s some slogan that we can keep going here and hopefully be going for the next couple of years," Smith said.

Smith said he also heard from Vikings’ veteran offensive tackle Brian O’Neill via text while on his visit. O’Neill told him, "Man I’m glad you’re here so I don’t have to face you twice a year. He said, ‘I’d rather have you over here practicing against you than playing against you on Sunday,’" Smith said.

Signing with a NFC North Division rival, Smith will also face old teammate Aaron Rodgers at least twice next year.

"It’s going to be fun. I talked to Danielle Hunter yesterday and I told him that I may be coming here and signing. He was like ‘OK, now we can be one of the best duos in the league.’ A lot of quarterbacks, they’re going to have to fear us," Smith said.

Smith is back healthy, hungry and motivated to prove he’s one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He joins Harrison Phillips and Jordan Hicks as free agent additions for Minnesota’s new-look 3-4 defense.