CLEVELAND — Za’Darius Smith has dropped down to touch his literal football roots.
“Hand in the dirt,” he said.
Of all the reasons Smith is excited to be with the Cleveland Browns — a fresh start, playing on a defensive line with Myles Garrett, being back in the AFC North — the chance to play defensive end again means as much as anything.
“When I first started playing football, I was in a 4-3 system and I was always taught to just go — go get the quarterback, affect them,” Smith said after practice Wednesday. “In this situation, being here now, I get the opportunity to do that, so I just can’t wait.
“Can’t wait to get going, man.”
The Browns can’t wait, either. Putting the finishing touches on a massive defensive overhaul this offseason, Cleveland acquired Smith from the Minnesota Vikings this month in exchange for a pair of fifth-round draft picks.
It’s a minor investment in a major player.
Smith’s a three-time Pro Bowler with 54 1/2 career sacks, all while playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Now 30, and heading into his final years playing in the NFL, he’s motivated to win a Super Bowl.
“My main goal right now is get a ring,” said Smith, who began his pro career with the Ravens in 2015. “That’s something that I never have experienced. So that’s the No. 1 goal, is help this team win a Super Bowl. Well, first of all, win the AFC North, sorry. And then go on and play in the Super Bowl.”
Smith is coming off a strange season with the Vikings, who signed him to a three-year, $42 million free agent contract after he spent three years in Green Bay.
Smith had 9 1/2 sacks in his first nine games in 2022, but a knee injury hampered his productivity and that ineffectiveness led to rumblings about him being a malcontent. The chiseled 6-foot-4, 275-pounder still made the Pro Bowl.
“I couldn’t rest last year because every game I was making like $200,000 just to dress out,” he said. “So you would dress out, too? Right? Exactly. So now what’s different for me, I had a chance to rest my knee, get some rehab and actually train with my trainer in Orlando.
“And I’ve been out here working and I haven’t felt nothing, so I feel perfectly fine.”
He looks it.
“The guy’s a beast. Just look at him,” said Browns safety Juan Thornhill, another of the team’s new additions. “Who’s going to stop him? You got him. You got Garrett up front. You got all the other guys. They’re going to put pressure on the quarterback. So they’re definitely going to bring the heat, which allows us to make more plays.”
Smith’s presence alone gives the Browns a more fearsome image, and the idea of him coming off one edge and Garrett the other is enough to keep any offensive coordinator from getting a good night’s sleep.
Garrett isn’t attending Cleveland’s voluntary workouts, but Smith said he and the All-Pro have connected.
“He sent me a text message telling me that he can’t wait to get going and hopefully we could be the best duo in league,” Smith said. “And I was telling him the D-line, we got to come up with a name for the room. So he was like, ‘All right, I’m going to get some shirts. We going to make it big.’ So that chemistry already, I can tell is going to be great.”
Smith is also eager to work with new Browns coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose defenses have long played with an attacking style.
“I got a chance to talk with him when I first came in and he was telling me all the things that he wanted me to do,” Smith said. “He he was like, ‘man, we just need you to get off the ball. We know that you haven’t had that in the last past eight years.’ If had the opportunity, I probably would’ve had 100 sacks by now.”