Browns' Za'Darius Smith ready for 'fun and games' of returning to face Ravens: 'A lot of people may be booing'

Za’Darius Smith is back in the AFC North after four seasons spent between division rivals Green Bay and Minnesota.

The three-time Pro Bowler endured acrimonious ends to both tenures with the NFC North foes, believing he was treated poorly during his final season as a Packer and cutting his time with the Vikings short by requesting a release that instead led to his trade to Cleveland.

His new biggest rival, Baltimore, also knows a little something about being spurned by Smith. After originally drafting him in 2015 and enjoying his services for four seasons, the Ravens believed Smith was headed back for a reunion last offseason before he reneged to join Minnesota.

"Baltimore, I don't know, man," Smith said about the situation, via Browns transcript. "It was something where somebody leaked something and said that I agreed to the deal, but I never did. And a lot of Baltimore Ravens fans are upset about that. Like when I said when I get ready to go back, it's going to be pretty fun because a lot of people may be booing and a lot of people may be happy for me at the same time. So it's all fun and games at the end of the day."

Whatever the miscommunication, Smith will have his first opportunity for an intradivisional showdown with the Ravens in Week 4, while his first trek into enemy territory as a Brown against his former team will take place Week 10.

He'll return a much larger presence than he was when he first departed Baltimore. After starting just 16 games with 18.5 sacks in his four seasons as a Raven, Smith put together three Pro Bowl campaigns, all with double-digit sacks.

Although he's not slated to deliver any of that pain against his two other previous teams this season, Smith had no qualms about addressing issues that sprang up in his time with both.

"For one, it wasn't set up right," Smith said when asked why he wanted to re-do his contract in Minnesota. "Going through Green Bay my last year, I had the injury and a lot of teams started to say this and that about Z, but it wasn't about that. I'm always a team guy. You can call any player from any facility that I've been in and ask them about who Z really is. But a lot of people make stories up and it just didn't work out. I hated that. Wish I could have stayed and been a Smith Bro with Preston, but just happy to be here now, man, and get a new fresh start and continue my career here."

Asked a follow-up question about his contract's setup, he provided a clarification: "It was the guaranteed part. The first year was only guaranteed. So, I mean, now I'm basically in the same situation, but it's OK now, because I can get a chance to go in the free agency next year."

It turns out that an injury-related ripple effect starting in Green Bay affected his contract security in Minnesota and culminated in his arrival in Cleveland, where Smith figures to form a fearsome pass-rushing duo alongside Myles Garrett for a Browns team that hasn't finished better than third in the division since 2007.

Despite dealing with a knee injury and logging just 0.5 sacks in his final seven games last year after piling up 9.5 through his first nine, Smith is confident he can still be the Za'Darius from the first half of 2022.

"A lot of people didn't know, in my contract, I had it to where I had to play every game to get my bonus," Smith explained. "So certain situations, coaches were telling me give it all you can and then we'll just rest you from there. So I wasn't as effective as I was at the beginning of the season, but I'm all healthy now. Ready to go."

So, the 30-year-old Smith appears healthy once again, and reporters noted that he's also been looking incredibly happy.

As for why, Smith had a simple explanation.

"Because it's the beginning of something special," he said.

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