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2023 Vikings Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

EAGAN, Minn. — Players are less than a week away from reporting for 2023 Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel.

The first public practice is scheduled for Saturday, July 29, as part of Back Together Weekend, which is presented by The Salvation Army.

In preparation for the return of football, we started a position-by-position preview:

Now, we'll take a look at the defensive line.

View the best photos of Vikings DL James Lynch from the 2022 season.

Roster refresher

Returning starters: Harrison Phillips (17 games), Jonathan Bullard (seven games), James Lynch (two games), Khyiris Tonga (two games)

Also on the roster: (listed alphabetically by last name): Junior Aho, Calvin Avery, Sheldon Day, Dean Lowry, Jaquelin Roy, T.J. Smith

Key departure: Dalvin Tomlinson

2022 recap: The Vikings defensive line relied on a mix of old and new faces in 2022. Minnesota added Phillips during free agency, and he ended up being the only member of the team's defensive line to start all 17 regular-season games and the Wild Card matchup. Analytics site Pro Football Focus gave him an overall grade of 72.1, with a 73.6 grade against the run. The Vikings started Bullard in seven of the 12 games he played for Minnesota during his first season in purple, and they also rotated in Lynch (a 2020 fourth-round selection) for certain game situations. Minnesota during the preseason acquired Blacklock from the Texans via trade, and in October the team signed Tonga from the Falcons practice squad. Blacklock played in 11 games and notched his third career sack when he took down Patriots QB Mac Jones on Thanksgiving. Tonga's contributions may not have been splashy, but he quietly proved to be one of the Vikings best additions on the line; he recorded four pass breakups after having none in 2021 as a rookie in Chicago.

Minnesota drafted Otomewo, a former Golden Gopher, in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft and this year selected Roy in the fifth round of this year's draft.

From the dark side: Minnesota signed Lowry as a free agent, bringing him across the border after spending his first seven NFL seasons with the division-rival Packers.

3 Key Questions for Vikings Defensive Line

1. How will the defensive line look different under Flores?

Last season marked the first time Minnesota utilized a 3-4 base defensive system since 1985.

The Vikings are using the same base this season, albeit mixing it up, but are operating under Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores, whom they hired following the 2022 season. Ed Donatell was relieved of his duties after one season in the role with Minnesota.

Though we haven't seen Flores in action for a Vikings game day yet, he's already emphasized an aggressive mindset – something that he's demonstrated at previous stops.

"I'm aggressive by nature. Philosophically, that's something I believe in," Flores told media members in February. "[Head Coach Kevin O'Connell is] aggressive offensively. I'm aggressive defensively. That kind of philosophy was aligned – that's probably the best word to use.

"Like to be aggressive [but] not reckless – there's a method to the madness. There's a rhyme and reason, whether it's down and distance, field goal position, etc.," Flores added. "But it's not about me or Kev. It's about the players. It's about their ability to execute. It's about our ability to teach and coach and put them in right positions and get them doing things we think they can execute. And we'll do our very best to do that."

2. Will Tonga be a larger contributor?

Tonga has yet to make a major splash in the NFL, but Vikings coaches clearly see the lineman's potential. And with Tomlinson joining the Browns in free agency, opportunity is ripe for the taking.

Tonga was drafted in the seventh round in 2021 by Chicago but is already 27 years old, having served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to entering the NFL Draft.

He played 11 games last season for the Vikings, who signed him off the Falcons practice squad in early October. Tonga totaled 28 tackles (12 solo), one-half sack, a tackle for loss and four passes defensed.

While the sample size is small, Tonga has been highly touted by analytics site Pro Football Focus, who spotlighted him as the Vikings highest-graded interior defensive lineman. PFF gave him an overall grade of 77.8, which ranked 14th in the NFL. Tonga received solid individual grades for run defense (73.3) and pass rush (69.7) but struggled at tackling (31.7).

Earlier this spring, Sports Illustrated's Will Ragatz tabbed Tonga as a potential breakout player for Minnesota's defense in 2023. Ragatz wrote that Tonga is a "true nose tackle with outstanding strength and underrated quickness."


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3. What will the DL rotation look like in 2023?

With new faces in the position group, including longtime starter and new Viking Lowry, what will the rotation on the defensive line look like?

The Vikings rotated in Bullard and Blacklock last season, but neither was a full participant during Minnesota's minicamp last month because they were rehabbing injuries.

Phillips is returning for his second season with the Vikings, and he's sure to play a significant role in the defense. It will be interesting to see how Flores utilizes his athleticism up front.

Lowry posed a threat to the Vikings offense for several years; now, he's on the other side. Will the former Northwestern standout add an extra level of grit to the trenches?

Depth is always crucial on the defensive line, so a set rotation leaning on strong reserves will be important to establish in the coming weeks.