The Vikings open up their season Sunday vs. the Falcons as a team that has changed a lot in the coaching ranks but not changed much at all on the field.
When it comes to the depth chart, this is basically the same roster from their devastating season-ending home loss to the Bears in December, when they missed a chance to secure a playoff spot and salvage an up-and-down season.
On offense, the only changes will be on the offensive line, where Josh Kline starts at right guard instead of Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein is at left guard to make room for rookie center Garrett Bradbury.
On defense, there is only one change: Shamar Stephen has replaced Sheldon Richardson on the defensive line. Everyone else is back.
The simple fact is that the Vikings hope their change in offensive coaches will be enough for this team to compete for a Super Bowl.
One of the players who no doubt will help lead that charge is Danielle Hunter, the fifth-year defensive end out of Louisiana State who has become one of the most dominant pass-rushing forces in the NFL.
Last year, he finished tied for fourth in the league and led the Vikings with 14½ sacks. He had six sacks as a rookie in 2015, 12½ in 2016 and seven in ’17. Since 2016, he is tied for the sixth-most sacks in the league.
For a third-round draft pick, Hunter’s rise has been incredible each season.
“It’s from having great teammates and them showing me the way,” he said. “I come out and work on my craft. I’m a professional athlete. It’s my job to keep getting better and better and taking the coaching that [defensive line] coach Andre Patterson gives me every day. He tells me to focus on the little things day in and day out.”
What is maybe the most amazing thing about Hunter’s success is how young he is. He won’t turn 25 until October. And still, this past week, NFL.com named him the most irreplaceable player on the Vikings roster.
Since the NFL started keeping sacks as an official statistic in 1982, only four players have had more than Hunter at the age of 24 — the Rams’ Robert Quinn, the Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas, the 49ers’ Aldon Smith and the Colts’ Dwight Freeney. The average draft position of those four was No. 9 overall. Hunter was taken at No. 88.
Hunter said joining the Vikings changed his style of play and made him a more dominant defender.
“When I went to LSU, I did what I was supposed to do as a football player,” he said. “Went out there and took my coaching the way I was supposed to. When I came here, I took my game to another level. I came in and I was focused, thankful enough to have a great team and a great supporting staff, with great coaches to help me out. I took it in. It makes me want to keep getting better and better.”
This is the kind of player development plan the Vikings want, and it’s why, even after a disappointing 8-7-1 season, they brought back basically the whole team.
Hunter said having players and coaches to learn from year after year helped him become this kind of player.
“It wasn’t built over one night. I came in and worked. Everson [Griffen], LJ [Linval Joseph], B Rob [Brian Robison] and coach Patterson showed me the way,” Hunter said. “He told me that if I want something, I have to go get it and no one is going to give it to me. Every day in practice, it isn’t easy being great. I have to keep working.”
Hunter added that coach Mike Zimmer’s expertise on defense has also rubbed off on his play.
“Zimmer helped me,” he said. “He coached DeMarcus Ware and other defensive ends, and he told me what he would do to those defensive ends. I try to implement that into my game.”
Ready for a better season
While Hunter posted career highs in sacks and tackles last season, he said this year has more urgency than ever to get better because of how last year ended.
“We have to go out with an aggressive attitude — the mentality that we need to have when we go out there, that is all we have to do on defense,” he said. “Just have to continue to get better and better every day, focus on what we need to focus on and play fundamental football, be fundamentally sound on defense and play our technique.”
In an effort to improve his game even more, Hunter worked out this offseason with trainer James Cooper.
“I trained down in Houston and worked on my hands, my speed and just watched film,” he said. “You have to keep an eye on what you do from years past. I looked through things to see what I could do better and what I did good and what other players did, if I could use things off of how they play and things like that. That’s all part of the offseason.”
After signing a five-year, $72 million contract that will keep him with the Vikings through 2023, Hunter is ready to focus on becoming the best player he can be on a Super Bowl-winning team.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “It all starts by just taking it one day at a time, every play by play, focusing on now and continuing to work.”
• The Vikings’ home schedules for 2020, ’21 and ’22 have some big-name teams outside of the division, even though the dates for the games have yet to be determined. In 2020 the Vikings will play Atlanta, Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee at home. In 2021 they play host to the Rams, Seattle, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And in 2022 they will face Dallas, the Giants, New England and the Jets.
• The Twins rank fifth in AL attendance, trailing the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox and Astros. Twins President Dave St. Peter said the team should make money in 2019: “We are certainly going to make budget from an attendance perspective. We did not budget north of 2 million [fans], and I think we’re going to ultimately get to [at least] 2.2 million in overall attendance.”
• The Gophers football team returns home Saturday to play Georgia Southern, which runs one the triple option, one of the most unique offenses in the country. The Eagles ranked No. 7 last year in rushing yards per game with 273.4, right behind Wisconsin.
• Not only is Minnehaha Academy’s Chet Holmgren ranked No. 7 overall among boys’ basketball recruits for the Class of 2021, according to 247 Sports, but former East Ridge athlete Kendall Brown — now at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas — is No. 22 overall.
• Vikings Executive Vice President Lester Bagley on what the team saw in Andrew Miller, who is replacing Kevin Warren as chief operating officer: “He was four years at the Toronto Blue Jays and 10 years at Cleveland, his role there was executive vice president of business operations. He is a great guy, very much a collaborator, very focused on business.”
• ESPN’s Dan Graziano listed U.S. Bank Stadium as the top venue in the NFL. “The space-age viking ship exterior shape is a bit weird, but wait until you get a load of the gleaming, sunny, modern perfection inside,” he wrote.