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2023 Vikings Position Recap: Outside Linebackers

EAGAN, Minn. — Despite being thin on depth, Vikings outside linebackers helped Minnesota's 2023 defense make substantial improvements in the first year under Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

Danielle Hunter turned in one of the finest seasons by an edge rusher and posted numerous career statistical highs on the way to earning the fourth Pro Bowl of his career. He also was named to the Professional Football Writers Association's All-NFC Team.

Hunter was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October after forcing two fumbles and recording 18 tackles (five tackles for loss) and 5.0 sacks over the course of five games (Minnesota went 4-1, losing only to Kansas City in October). During that stretch, Hunter recorded his 80th career sack, passing former teammate Everson Griffen (79.5) for seventh in franchise history.

At Cincinnati in Week 15, Hunter recorded 2.0 more sacks, passing Vikings Ring of Honor member Jared Allen (86.5) for sixth in team history.

Minnesota's initial plan was for Hunter to be joined frequently by edge rusher Marcus Davenport, who signed a one-year deal in free agency.

View the best photos of Vikings OLB Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, Pat Jones II, Andre Carter II, and Marcus Davenport during the 2023 season.

Throughout training camp, Hunter and Davenport flashed as becoming a powerful duo and showed the ability to move around the defensive front. Another planned pressure package involved kicking Davenport inside and adding D.J. Wonnum to the edge.

Best-laid plans sometimes don't come to fruition. Davenport missed Minnesota's opener, played just four defensive snaps in Week 2 at Philadelphia and was inactive the following week against the Chargers.

He recorded a sack in Week 4 at Carolina and again in Week 5 against Kansas City, but the 17 snaps he played at Chicago in Week 6 wound up capping the sixth pro season for the 2018 first-round pick by New Orleans.

Wonnum, a fourth-round pick in 2020, answered the bell and turned in a fine season. He started 14 of 15 games, recording career highs in tackles (62) and passes defensed (six) before suffering a quadriceps injury in Week 16 against Detroit.

Wonnum's versatility and effectiveness in Flores' system were missed down the final stretch, and his injury prevented him from taking a run at a new career high in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. He tied his 2021 numbers in each category.

Pat Jones II filled in for Wonnum, playing more than 50 defensive snaps in each of the final three games of the season. Week 16 was the first game in which the 2021 third-round pick had exceeded that snap count, and he recorded six tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack against the Lions.

Undrafted rookie Andre Carter II appeared in 12 games, primarily on special teams, playing 142 snaps with that unit.

Notable Numbers

16.5 — sacks by Hunter

In addition to a career high, that number ranks fifth by any Vikings player within one season all-time.

24.5 — sacks by Hunter and Wonnum

That total ranks as the fourth highest by a Vikings DE/OLB combo within one season, behind 32.5 in 1989 (21 by Chris Doleman and 11.5 by Al Noga), 30 in 2011 (22 by Jared Allen and 8.0 by Brian Robison) and 30 in 1969 (15 each by Carl Eller and Jim Marshall).

12 — games by Hunter with at least one sack, which tied Allen in 2011 for the most games within one Vikings season

23 — tackles for loss by Hunter, setting a career high and franchise record, passing Allen's 21 in 2011

Regular-Season Statistics


The Highest High

There are a few options, given how many big performances Hunter had, including 3.0 sacks at Philadelphia in Week 2, but we'll go with Week 4 at Carolina.

True, the Panthers were starting a rookie quarterback and finished with the worst record in the NFL in 2023, but this was a contest Minnesota absolutely had to have after an 0-3 start.

After falling behind early via a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown, the Vikings were still trailing late in the third quarter when Wonnum scooped and scored a fumble forced by Harrison Smith during a sack of Bryce Young.

Wonnum, a Georgia native who played college football at South Carolina, made his return to the region extra special by rumbling 51 yards for his first career touchdown. The score with 3:58 remaining in the third quarter put the Vikings up 14-13 and wildly swung momentum.

The Vikings closed the third quarter with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Justin Jefferson to cap a four-play, 56-yard drive that followed a quick three-and-punt. A sack by Wonnum on third-and-8 forced the punt.

Vikings outside linebackers combined for 17 tackles, 2.0 sacks, five tackles for loss and three quarterback hits.

The Biggest Bummer

Wonnum's injury was really tough to see for multiple reasons, but for this one, we're going with Davenport's lack of availability.

Minnesota didn't have much salary cap room to bring in free agents in 2023 and opted to direct considerable resources toward Davenport, who had dealt with multiple injuries while with the Saints but had at least played in 11 games each season.

But with the Vikings, Davenport missed all of 13 games and most of two others.

It was a very limited sample size, but Davenport was productive in those brief moments. Next Gen Stats calculated a quarterback pressure rate of 14.5 percent (10 pressures on 69 pass rushes) by Davenport.

Hunter's rate was calculated at 14.6 percent (86 on 591).

We'll never know how having both players may have affected Flores' decisions, but it would have been fun to see both of those players on the field together more often in 2023.

2 Pressing Questions for 2024

  1. Will the Vikings re-sign Hunter?

Flores talked multiple times in the 2023 offseason about looking forward to working with Hunter. Will it be a one-time occurrence, or will the Vikings re-sign the player they selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft?

As with any negotiation, multiple factors can affect a re-signing. Hunter will not turn 30 until the end of October. He has rebounded from missing all of 2020 and 10 games in 2021 to start every game since. His ability to be productive in multiple defenses (Minnesota used a 4-3 from 2015-21 and has switched to a 3-4 base with multiple looks in the past two seasons) may prompt interest from external suitors, but he's been around so many other Vikings who have spent all or most of their careers with Minnesota, that his comfort level may help the dialogue.

If returning Hunter is not in the cards, the Vikings obviously have a considerable amount of production to offset.

  1. How will depth be addressed?

Wonnum is on the mend as he's becoming eligible for free agency. Davenport also is becoming a free agent. That leaves Jones and Carter as the only outside linebackers under contract for 2024.

Will the Vikings test the waters in free agency to add to the group, address the position in the draft, or a combination of both? There are multiple variables at work here, but Flores' experience in the Patriots personnel department should help guide decisions.