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What will Vikings do if they don't draft a quarterback in the first round?

INDIANAPOLIS – If the Vikings don't select a quarterback in the NFL draft's first round, they've been doing their homework on the defensive line class.

The Vikings need both quality and quantity with a slew of their own defensive linemen, headlined by Danielle Hunter, headed for free agency.

Just about all of the potential first-round edge rushers have been connected to the Vikings, where analysts from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah have the team drafting Dallas Turner (Alabama) and Jared Verse (Florida State) with the 11th overall pick.

In addition to those top edge rushers, Vikings evaluators also met at the NFL scouting combine with potential first-round defensive tackle Byron Murphy II (Texas), and projected Day 2 edge rushers Adisa Isaac (Penn State) and Bralen Trice (Washington). They also met with multiple prospects at last month's Senior Bowl.

The Vikings are looking to fortify a defense that experienced highs and lows under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah attributed the lows to the front office, saying the Vikings lacked serviceable depth to weather injuries.

"Early in the season, we were figuring out who we were, what was our identity?" Adofo-Mensah said last week. "Then middle of the year we played some really good football without [edge rusher] Marcus Davenport, who was unfortunately injured. We found a way to play, but as you get later in the season, teams adjust and evolve and adapt."

"Eventually we just ran out of depth," he added. "We didn't have enough to overcome. … Injuries happen in this sport and it's my job to build the two-deep [depth chart], the special teams, the player development, all these different things to overcome the adversity that can happen in a season. We didn't do that, and that's something we'll keep working towards. But you know, a lot of good things to work off of what we did schematically."

The Vikings haven't drafted a defensive lineman in the first round since 2013′s pick of Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd; a first-round edge rusher hasn't come to Minnesota since USC's Kenechi Udeze in 2004.

A thin depth chart may warrant a change.

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With free agency opening next week, the Vikings have just five defensive linemen under contract for 2024: edge rushers Patrick Jones II and Andre Carter II, and interior linemen Harrison Phillips, Dean Lowry and Jaquelin Roy.

Edge rushers Hunter, D.J. Wonnum and Davenport and a few defensive tackles, including Jonathan Bullard and James Lynch, can become free agents on March 13. The team could re-sign Wonnum or Bullard, but the Vikings are not expected to re-sign Davenport.

March 13 is a soft deadline in the long saga between the Vikings and Hunter, whose 16.5 sacks ranked fifth in the NFL last season. They've explored trade options over the years. They have restructured their agreements for three straight years, including the last two with Adofo-Mensah leading the front office. The Vikings and Hunter's representatives have yet to find middle ground on a long-term deal.

Now they have just days left before Hunter's contract voids, leaving nearly $15 million in "dead money" cap charges that can't be manipulated with a new deal. Before March 13, the Vikings can push those charges into future seasons within the structure of a new contract.

On March 11, Hunter and all NFL free agents on expiring contracts can begin negotiations with other teams.

"We've obviously had these conversations for the last couple of years," Adofo-Mensah said of Hunter's contract. "We'll have fruitful dialogue like we always do. It's not just about this season, [but] the next season, all these things. Always got to remember the players have their needs from their standpoint. I always respect that. And so, we'll go to the table and see if we can figure out, really, just to see if we can talk about a way to kind of find a deal to meet in the middle."

Five edge rushers are routinely projected as possible first-round picks: Turner, Verse, UCLA's Laiatu Latu, Penn State's Chop Robinson and Missouri's Darius Robinson.

Hunter, a nine-year veteran with the Vikings, has inspired the next wave in different ways.

Turner, a 247-pound pass rusher who starred at the combine with a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, first mentioned the freakishly-athletic Hunter when asked about which NFL players he copies.

Latu, who had 23.5 sacks over the past two years at UCLA, suffered a neck injury in preseason workouts during the 2020 season — just like Hunter. Latu underwent a similar neck fusion surgery and spent two seasons out of football. And just like Hunter, Latu was cleared to play by L.A.-based neck surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins, whom Latu recalled telling him about his work with Hunter and Peyton Manning.

Two years ago, Latu transferred to UCLA from Washington, where doctors reportedly would not clear him to play again.

"Being told you'd never get to play football again," Latu said. "I never let it get the best of me. I continued to work out, continued to grow stronger, continued to work my pass rush moves and stuff like that and really just locked in and never gave up on my dreams."