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Why the fear over Za’Darius Smith?

Less than a week after the Browns traded for the veteran DE, a narrative is forming that he could derail the upcoming season. What’s that all about?

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry surprised the NFL late last Friday by working out a trade with the Minnesota Vikings for defensive end Za’Darius Smith.

The deal to add a three-time Pro Bowl player with 54.5 career sacks and who is one of just five players in the league to have more than 10 sacks in three of the past four seasons received positive reviews. Smith is a solid addition to Cleveland’s rebuilt defensive line, and the cost to acquire him was low both in terms of draft picks (a pair of fifth-rounders) and salary cap (a tick over $3 million cap charge) contributed to making the move that much more appealing.

Yet here we are, just a week from the transaction, and a narrative has developed that the Browns are somehow making a deal with the devil in acquiring Smith.

Some fans are already experiencing agita over Smith turning into “Jadeveon Clowney 2.0” and quitting on the Browns this fall if things do not go well the way Clowney did last season.

Those fears were advanced on Wednesday when Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer appeared on Cleveland sports talk radio station 92.3 The Fan and expressed the idea that the Browns are taking a big risk given that Smith “wore out his welcome” with the Green Bay Packers and again with the Vikings, starting at the 8:10 mark:

“It is worth a try, I guess. The Browns have obviously sunk resources into trying to find the right rusher to put opposite Myles Garrett. I think you are bringing in a guy (Smith) who has his issues. He is very talented … but he wore out his welcome in Green Bay. He pissed a lot of people off in Baltimore when he agreed to go back there last year and then went back on his word. Then he wore out his welcome in Minnesota.

“Because it is a premium position you have to do things like this to bring in a guy with high-end talent. So you just hope you can keep him in line and make it work, and being around Myles Garrett will help. Maybe this is (Clowney 2.0), can you make it work for a year? Maybe. But what if it blows up or goes in the wrong direction at the wrong time?”

There are two items that Breer brings up here, the first being that Smith was no longer wanted by the Packers or the Vikings due to personality issues.

But how true is that?

Looking back to his final season in Green Bay in 2021, Smith was unhappy because of an injury that limited him to just one game that season. After undergoing surgery on his back, Smith returned to the team in November but perceived that the team’s attitude toward him had changed, according to an interview from September of 2022 with Tyler Dunne of Go Long:

“How I was (perceived) here in the building, I came down to here, to a nobody. To everybody in the building. I was like, ‘Damn, why am I being treated like this?’ I brought the culture. I helped change this (stuff). Why the (expletive) am I the one being treated like that? Walking past me not saying nothing. (Not) ‘Z, how’s your back doing?’ — there was none of that.”

Everyone wants to feel valued in their job, so if what Smith said is true it is not surprising he would be upset if he felt the Packers were not showing him the type of love he believed he deserved.

The Packers ultimately decided to release Smith because they could use the $15 million in cap savings from the move, which is understandable given that he was coming off surgery and had only played that one game.

As for the situation in Baltimore, it’s true that Smith initially agreed to a deal in free agency with the Ravens, who he had played for from 2015 to 2018, only to change his mind and sign with the Vikings for more money. On the surface that appears to be a sound business decision, and if the Ravens are upset about it, well, teams make business decisions about players on a daily basis, so hard to have much sympathy when the tables are turned like that.

Regarding the Vikings, it was a similar situation as Minnesota needed salary cap space to sign their draft picks and Smith decided that one year with the team was enough to fill his desire for revenge against the Packers.

So does that all add up to someone “wearing out their welcome” with their previous teams? Maybe, but it feels like a bit of a big jump to reach that conclusion.

As for the fears of Smith being “Clowney 2.0,” it is certainly possible and the concern is at least somewhat understandable given that the wound is still fresh from Clowney quitting on the team last season.

If that were to happen, the Browns are far better protected at the position this year than last. If Clowney was not in the game last season, Cleveland had to turn to the likes of Chase Winovich and rookies Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas.

This season brings a significant upgrade after the signing of Ogbo Okoronkwo in free agency, the selection of Isaiah McGuire in the NFL Draft, and the fact that Wright and Thomas are entering their second season and are more acclimated to the demands of the NFL game.

Everything brings an element of risk in the NFL, and that seems to be especially true when it comes to the Browns.

But even knowing and accepting that reality, it is hard to see much substance to the fears that Smith is somehow a ticking time bomb with the potential to derail the 2023 season for the Browns.