The Vikings are getting closer to playing football. Training camp ramps up this week with the start of an eight-day strength and conditioning program that features some on-field work (rookies started earlier). We’ll preview the key points at each position until practices are scheduled to begin Aug. 12; full pads on Aug. 17.
DE Danielle Hunter, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DT Shamar Stephen, DT Armon Watts, DE Anthony Zettel, DE D.J. Wonnum, DT James Lynch, DT Jaleel Johnson, DT Jalyn Holmes, DT Hercules Mata’afa, DE Kenny Willekes, DE Eddie Yarbrough, DE Stacy Keely, DT David Moa
In: Zettel (free agent), Wonnum (fourth-round pick), Lynch (fourth-round pick), Willekes (seventh-round pick), Moa (undrafted free agent)
Out: DT Linval Joseph (released, signed with Chargers), DE Everson Griffen (free agent), DE Stephen Weatherly (signed with Panthers), DT Michael Pierce (opted out of 2020 season after signing with Vikings in free agency)
A group that’s represented a major piece of the Vikings’ identity during the Mike Zimmer era will have a different feel this season, with the Vikings deciding to move on from Joseph in March and Griffen still looking for a new home after his decision to opt out of his contract in February. Weatherly also got a two-year, $12.5 million deal from the Panthers, stripping the Vikings of more depth at defensive end. They’ll count on Odenigbo to become a full-time starter opposite Hunter in 2020, while hoping Wonnum can contribute quickly. Pierce was set to be Joseph’s successor at nose tackle before he opted out of the season due to concerns over how his asthma history would affect him if he contracted COVID-19. Now is the time the Vikings would love to see another step forward from players like Johnson and Watts, who both had impressive moments last season and could be counted on for larger roles this year. The Vikings think they might have found a steal in Lynch, whose pass-rushing skills could prove valuable in the middle of the line. Hunter — still only 25 years old — returns for his fifth season as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, but he’ll need help from a remade group this fall.
Nose tackle. The need for a consistent run-stopper became more prominent after Pierce’s opt-out; the Vikings like what they could get out of Johnson (who posted a career-high 3 1/2 sacks last season) and Watts, who impressed at the end of the season and is reunited with assistant defensive line coach Imarjaye Albury after the two worked together at Arkansas. Neither has consistently played a significant number of snaps in the NFL, and both will have to show they can handle the job over the course of a season.
Player to watch
Odenigbo. The former seventh-round pick caught on last year after coming back to the team that had cut him twice, and posted seven sacks while playing a variety of positions for the Vikings last year in 401 snaps. He’s got the inside track to start at defensive end this year, and will be counted on to pair with Hunter and give the Vikings the pass-rushing tandem they’ve enjoyed for so long from both end spots. It’s worth watching how Odenigbo adjusts to tackles who’ve had time to study him and prepare for him specifically, after a year where he saw plenty of pass-rushing snaps as a defensive tackle.
268: Number of quarterback pressures Hunter registered in his first four NFL seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. The defensive end was second in the league last season with 88 pressures (Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith had 93), and Hunter had 14 1/2 sacks for the second straight season.
Photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune