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Cap casualties: The 49ers should be ready to pounce if the Vikings grant Za’Darius Smith his release

The veteran edge rusher would be an excellent fit.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the 49ers are in need of help on the defensive line. Depth is required on both the edge and the interior of the defensive line, with the potential departures of Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu in free agency set to create significant holes in an area of the team that has long since been critical to San Francisco’s success.

There appears to be enough depth in the interior defensive line draft class for the 49ers to find some rookie reinforcements in the middle and later rounds. It is not easy to say the same of the crop of edge draft prospects, which is top-heavy, meaning the Niners may be forced to make a splashier move in free agency.

San Francisco is not exactly swimming in cap space – the Niners have $6.4 million according to Over The Cap. However, the 49ers’ position as perennial Super Bowl contenders may entice veteran players looking to win a championship to take a discount.

One such veteran may be about to hit the market in Za’Darius Smith, who has requested his release from the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings have no plans to release Smith, according to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport. Should they change their stance, Smith should be near the top of San Francisco’s list of free agent targets.

Smith has been extremely consistent in recent seasons. He has recorded double-digit sacks in three of the last four years, failing to do so in 2021 when he played just one regular-season game for the Green Bay Packers.

His 10-sack bounce-back effort for the Vikings last season was extremely impressive, with Smith finishing ninth in total pressures according to Pro Football Reference.

That production will obviously appeal to the 49ers, as will Smith’s versatility. He has significant experience playing on the interior as well as on the edge. Moreover, he has spent much of his career playing on defenses that employ three-man fronts in Baltimore, Green Bay and Minnesota.

With San Francisco having brought in a defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks who did use three-man fronts during his time in Carolina, Smith projects a strong fit who can occupy multiple roles on a D-line that may diversify its fronts and rely less often on the Wide 9 under DeMeco Ryans’ successor.

Still only 30, Smith could see a potential release by the Vikings as a final opportunity to cash in and earn a lucrative deal. If that is his aim, any pursuit of him by the 49ers will be difficult. Yet without a ring to show for his continually strong play, a pairing between Smith and the Super Bowl-contending Niners is one that would make sense.