In a similar vein to how fans felt when Mike Zimmer took over for Leslie Frazier, the excitement is palpable for the beginning of the Kevin O’Connell era.
While the team prepares for the season, we are doing the same at the Vikings Wire. We will be producing previews breaking down both each position and the team as a whole.
Today, we continue with our preview series by talking about the defensive line.
Starter: Danielle Hunter
Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) on the sidelines against the Kansas City Chiefs before the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
After two straight season-ending injuries, Hunter is back and looking better than ever.
The former Pro Bowl edge rusher was on fire last season before tearing his pectoral muscle against the San Francisco 49ers. His six sacks and six tackles for loss had him on a trajectory for another Pro Bowl appearance and All-Pro consideration.
The season-ending injuries should give cause for concern moving forward. The idea of injury prone doesn’t really exist but expecting Hunter to stay healthy moving forward is a tough sell. The reality is that a healthy Hunter makes a massive difference for a Vikings defense that will rely on the pass rush to get the defense off the field.
Starter: Za'Darius Smith
Jan 23, 2020; Kissimmee, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58), Green Bay Packers linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55), Minnesota Vikings defensive end Daniella Hunter (99) and linebacker Chandler Jones (55) pose during NFC practice at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Everson Griffen era is over and it’s onto the Za’Darius Smith era.
An absolute terror to offenses – especially the Vikings – Smith is a versatile pass rusher that thrives on the outside and when standing up in the A-gap. He knows how to use his size and strength to out-leverage linemen to generate pressure. What makes Smith unique is the ability to do that and win on the outside with speed and bend.
The duo of Smith and Hunter will be not only the best the Vikings have had in ages but the catalyst for success on the defensive side of the football.
Backup: Patrick Jones II
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Patrick Jones II (93) participates in NFL training camp Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Jones II has shown immense improvement this offseason as one of only three survivors from the 2021 NFL draft class.
Coming out of Pitt, Jones II showed that he had plenty of ability but there was still something missing. The issue with Jones wasn’t that he had ability but rather was underdeveloped. He had four pass rush moves in his arsenal but they were all at about 30%. The trick would be developing one or two of those moves initially while he keeps working on the others.
Throughout the preseason, Jones II showed that he has improved as a pass rusher but there is room to grow as a run defender. He was out of position far too often. As a backup, his presence will be mostly used on passing downs.
Backup: D.J. Wonnum
Nov 28, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) celebrates after a sack against the San Francisco 49ers during the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
With 11.5 sacks to start his career, the box score would tell you that he’s been a really good player. That’s not entirely the case.
Wonnum has gotten most of his production from blown protections and coming in unblocked. He gets stood up on pass rushes far too often and his counters are not great.
The benefit for Wonnum is that he’s going into his third season and showed some growth. Against the 49ers, he unleashed a nasty spin move to get a pressure and force a fourth down. If he can continue growing and developing, the Vikings will be able to go four deep and
Backup: Luiji Vilain
Jun 7, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Luiji Vilian (43) performs a drill during mandatory mini camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
The most unlikely player to make the 53-man roster, Vilain was one of the better defenders during the preseason. Both successful in the running and passing games, Vilain was insanely productive. He got an interception, fumble recovery and a sack across the three preseason games.
The only 2022 UDFA to make the roster, the idea of keeping Vilain is one of unlocking his potential along with having extra insurance with both Hunter and Smith having a history of injury issues.