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After breakout season in Baltimore, could OLB Za’Darius Smith be a target for Giants?

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Smith is coming off his best season as a pass rusher

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NFL: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens
Za’Darius Smith reacts after sacking Buffalo’s Nathan Peterman.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In a piece for Forbes detailing how she believes the New York Giants are approaching the offseason, Patricia Traina mentioned Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith as a potential free agent target for the Giants.

Traina wrote:

Smith is coming off career highs in tackles (45) and sacks (8.5), and oh yeah, he can cover too. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the 26-year-old also played in his first 16-game season of his career and that he hasn’t even begin to scratch his potential. Smith comes from a 3-4 defensive base and is certain to draw multiple suitors in free agency, one of whom might not be the Ravens, who are likely to prioritize their sagging offense in free agency while potentially addressing the defense via the draft. Smith could certainly give the Giants pass rush an extra boost. And oh yeah, he has also been a force on special teams.

That got my attention, so let’s take a closer look at Smith as we continue profiling potential targets for the Giants in advance of the march free agent frenzy.

The basics

Age: 27 in September
Position: OLB
Experience: 4 seasons
Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 272
2018 stats: 45 tackles (career high) | 10 tackles for loss (career high) | 8.5 sacks (career high) | 25 quarterback hits (career high)

Pro Football Focus: Overall grade (71.7) | Run defense (57.6) | Pass rush (78.7) | Coverage (63.2) | QB pressures (61) | Missed tackles (2)

PFF ranked Smith No. 32 on its list of the top 50 potential free agents and also the most underrated free agent likely to reach the market:

It’s setting up to be a deep edge class, which makes Smith that much more appealing on the open market. The other edge-rusher out of Kentucky in 2015, the former fourth-rounder passed up Bud Dupree in a big way this season. Smith notched 60 pressures, the 17th most among edge defenders in the league. He doesn’t offer too much in the way of run defense, but hey, it’s 2019.

The skinny

A fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in 2015, Smith (5.5 sacks as a rookie) has always hinted at pass rush potential. Entering 2018, though, he had never really blossomed. Last season, however, he matched his previous career total with eight starts for Baltimore and set career highs in production pretty much across the board.

SB Nation’s Baltimore Beatdown believes Smith has “a talented skill set and untapped potential” and thinks the Ravens need to make Smith a free agent priority.

After middling production in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Smith’s future in Baltimore appeared bleak despite an impressive rookie campaign a few seasons ago. However, in a contract year, Smith did his best to earn a pay raise.

Smith’s performance this past season was one the biggest surprises on the Ravens roster. Throughout the year, Smith made timely and disruptive plays, and was also the team’s most consistent pass rusher. His 12 tackles for loss ranked second on the team behind only Terrell Suggs.

Smith, 26, has only four seasons worth of mileage on his body and is entering the prime of his career. After putting up career-highs in tackles and sacks last year, it’s fair to assume that he’s yet to reach his full potential.

Thing is, it sounds like new Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta isn’t ready to break the bank to keep Smith in Baltimore.

“I think the jury’s still out,” DeCosta said. We don’t know what Za’Darius’ market is going to be. We have a lot of different ways that we could go. He had a really nice year. Typically, the market is usually out of control for those guys, initially out of the gate. There are some good pass rushers this year. We’re optimistic we may have a chance to bring him back, but in some cases, it’s really not up to us. It’s up to what the market bears.”

Would, and should, the Giants be willing to spend big money on Smith?

GM Dave Gettleman has acknowledged that the Giants need more play makers on defense. The pass rush finished middle of the pack in pressure created, but only 30th in the league in sacks. Connor Barwin has been released. The future of Olivier Vernon is up in the air. There is a deep class of edge rushers available in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Might Gettleman and the Giants opt to add a player entering his prime who has already shown that he can do the job and could, as Baltimore Beatdown seems to indicate, still be improving?

At this point, we don’t know. Just keep Smith’s name in mind as free agency approaches.