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Za’Darius Smith thrilled to have ‘hand back in the dirt,’ finally be 4-3 defensive end in NFL

BEREA — Za’Darius Smith has 54.5 sacks and been selected to three Pro Bowls in eight NFL seasons, all while playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

He can only imagine what his resume would look like if he’d been a defensive end in a 4-3 system.

“If I had the opportunity, I probably would’ve had a hundred sacks by now,” Smith said Wednesday after an organized team activities practice, adding he played end in high school and college. “Getting a chance to put my hand back in the dirt and be a natural 4-3 end is going to be big for me.”

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He’s finally getting the chance after being traded to the Browns earlier this month from the Vikings. New coordinator Jim Schwartz runs an attacking 4-3 scheme, and Smith slides into the left end spot opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett.

The lines between a 4-3 and 3-4 have been blurred in the NFL in recent years, especially with the increase of sub packages that feature more defensive backs and fewer linebackers. But Smith has the requisite size (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) to set the edge at end and mentioned the scheme first when asked about the trade.

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“I get a chance to play in the 4-3 system and that’s something that I never played in while I was in the league. So I was happy, man,” he said. “And knowing that I get a chance to go be with (defensive tackle) Dalvin Tomlinson again and get a chance to be with Myles, man, it’s a great feeling.”

Garrett wasn’t at the voluntary practice, but he got in touch with Smith after the trade.

“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 this year.”

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The Vikings wanted to create salary cap space, Smith wasn’t happy with his contract and the Browns coveted a proven veteran at the premium position. It all came together for the trade, agreed to May 12, in which the Browns got Smith and sixth- and seventh-round draft picks in 2025. The Vikings received fifth-round picks in 2024 and 2025.

Smith, 30, went to the Pro Bowl in his only season with the Vikings. He had 10 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, five passes defensed and a forced fumble in 16 games, but was limited to a half-sack over his last eight games, including a playoff loss. A knee injury suffered at midseason limited his effectiveness.

“I couldn’t rest last year because every game I think 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.”

Smith is aiming for double-digit sacks for the fourth time in the last five years, with the only miss in 2021 when he played one game and had back surgery to repair a bulging disk. But his primary goal is to help the Browns to their first AFC North title since it was formed in 2002. He won division titles in his stops with the Ravens, Packers and Vikings.

“If you set goals, it’s got to start from there,” he said. “If you don’t win a division, it’s really not a possibility of going to the Super Bowl.”

He was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year — an award Garrett has talked about since being the No. 1 pick in 2017 — before the injury last season and has the honor on his bucket list.

“But my main goal right now is get a ring,” Smith said. “That’s something that I never have experienced.

“Self-goals is something that’s going to come once you play as part of the team, once you do your job basically.”

He considers himself a veteran presence responsible for fostering team chemistry and helping the young players develop. He was planning a defensive line dinner for Wednesday and gave pointers on the practice field.

“Za’Darius has been awesome just having him in the building,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “He’s a ball of energy. He’s great around our players, our young players. He practices hard. He does a great job out here. When he’s in the building, in the weight room and the meeting rooms, on the field, he brings some juice to what we’re doing.”

Smith was the latest addition in an offseason filled with moves to fortify a defense that struggled last season as the Browns went 7-10. General manager Andrew Berry signed Tomlinson, end Ogbo Okoronkwo and safeties Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod in free agency and drafted tackle Siaki Ika and end Isaiah McGuire.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Thornhill said of the Smith trade. “The Browns didn’t really win last year, so AB’s going to bring in as many guys as possible to win. He wants to win. Everyone wants to win.”

Smith is expected to be a huge part of what’s projected to be a significant improvement.

“The guy’s a beast. Just look at him,” Thornhill said. “He made it to the Pro Bowl. 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 is looking forward to facing the Ravens twice a year. They drafted him in the fourth round in 2015 and he appeared close to returning last offseason before signing with the Vikings.

Most of all he views his opportunity in Cleveland as a “fresh start” and is walking around with a smile.

“Because it’s the beginning of something special,” he said. “That’s a great answer.”

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.


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