A couple years before Tuesday, when Za'Darius Smith agreed to a three-year contract to join the Vikings, he was a Pro Bowl pass rusher for the Packers when he connected with Danielle Hunter at the all-star game in January 2020.
Hunter had a premonition, signing a Vikings jersey for Smith that spelled out their futures.
"Hopefully we'll be on the same team one day," Smith recalled what Hunter wrote. "And that day has come."
Smith joined the long list of former Packers standouts to cross the Wisconsin border and join the Vikings, agreeing to a deal worth up to $47 million, according to two league sources with knowledge of the negotiations.
“I just wanted to be somewhere I knew the coaching staff. Didn't have to go that far, three hours down the road [from Green Bay].”
During Smith's nearly 24-hour free-agent visit at TCO Performance Center that started Monday afternoon, he reconnected with Hunter over the phone. They talked about the lofty standard that's now expected of the Vikings' new pass-rushing tandem before Smith put pen to paper.
"He's like, 'OK, now we can be one of the best duos in the league,'" Smith said.
Smith and Hunter combined for 28 sacks during the 2019 season before they talked at the Pro Bowl about teaming up. They're expected to bookend the edges of coordinator Ed Donatell's 3-4 scheme as the Vikings transition from the longtime 4-3 front under former coach Mike Zimmer.
While introducing his top addition of the offseason, Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said he sensed an "extra motivated" Smith, who was released from Green Bay last week following an injury-shortened season. The Vikings were motivated to fit Smith into their financial picture at $14 million per season and incentives that can add an extra $5 million, two league sources said. How much of that money is guaranteed remains to be seen.
According to OverTheCap.com and ESPN, the Vikings converted Hunter's recent $18 million roster bonus into a signing bonus to clear $13.5 million in cap room.
Smith's contract with the Vikings is an upgrade from the reported $12.5 million-per-year deal he agreed to with Baltimore, where he was a 2015 fourth-round pick out of Kentucky, and then reneged on last week.
"Love Baltimore, want to thank Baltimore for giving me the opportunity, but things didn't work out," Smith said. "In my heart, I just wanted to be somewhere I knew the coaching staff. Didn't have to go that far, three hours down the road [from Green Bay]."
Smith, 29, follows new Vikings staff members Mike Pettine, the assistant head coach, and Mike Smith, outside linebackers coach, from Green Bay to Minnesota. He cited his relationships with those coaches as a big pull to join the rival Vikings.
Smith had 26 sacks in 32 games between the 2019 and 2020 seasons — tied with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald for third among defenders in that span. A back injury derailed Smith last year, when he played just 18 snaps in Green Bay's opener before September surgery led to injured reserve. Smith said he had a bulging disc that was "a little bit bigger than normal." He returned for the Packers' playoff loss to the 49ers and said he's healthy after passing his Vikings physical on Tuesday.
"Felt something in the weight room," Smith explained. "Completed the surgery. I don't know too many people that come back from back surgery, came back in four months, got a chance to practice for three weeks [at the end of the season]."
Smith was asked whether staying in the NFC North and facing the Packers, who cut him to save more than $15 million in cap space, was also a pull for him.
"Little bit," he said through a grin. "Like I said, I want to thank them, but I can't wait, you know? That's one game I'm looking forward to. All is well, they treated me nice."
Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said he's seen Smith "end a lot of games" with his ability to disrupt quarterbacks. During Smith's visit, Vikings officials took him through the team's museum at their Eagan headquarters, and he said he was awed by the fact that the famed Purple People Eaters were all Pro Bowl selections. He recited their motto.
"Meet at the quarterback," Smith said. "That's a slogan we can keep going here."
The Vikings are paying for game-changing plays. Smith should pocket a lot this year like Hunter, who is scheduled to earn $20 million. Hunter's bonus conversion cut his 2022 cap figure down to $12.3 million, spreading the charges into 2023, the final year of his deal, and 2024, a void year.
Smith and the 27-year-old Hunter lead an edge group that also includes young defensive ends D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Janarius Robinson and Kenny Willekes.
Smith also joins the likes of former Packers standouts like quarterback Brett Favre, receiver Greg Jennings, kicker Ryan Longwell and linebacker Desmond Bishop who left Green Bay to play for the Vikings.