Vikings.com is continuing its Xs and Os series on draft picks with the defensive line.
EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings defensive line room will look a little different during the 2020 season.
With the departures of Linval Joseph (Chargers) and Stephen Weatherly (Panthers) in free agency and Everson Griffen terminating the remainder of his contract to become a free agent, Minnesota brought in veteran defensive tackle Michael Pierce and turned to the NFL Draft.
The Vikings used three of their Day 3 selections on the position group, snagging a pair of defensive ends in D.J. Wonnum and Kenny Willekes and adding defensive tackle James Lynch.
Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson said during the draft that Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson is "going to bring the best out of them."
Here's a deep dive on how each of the drafted defensive linemen could figure into Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme:
Player Profile: DE D.J. Wonnum, South Carolina, Senior
Wonnum, who measured 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, was selected by Minnesota with the 117th overall pick. He started 30 of 43 games played at South Carolina and served as a team captain in 2019. Wonnum last season earned Second-Team All-SEC honors from TheAssociated Press after recording 37 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
He was named the Gamecocks 2019 Comeback Player of the Year after being limited to just five contests in 2018.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick called Wonnum a "value pick" for the Vikings in the fourth round.
"He plays with tremendous heavy hands in the run game, and in the pass game he has tremendous cornering speed," Riddick said. "He has the ability to get to that high-side pad, use his hands and then close on the quarterback and finish."
View images of Vikings fourth round draft pick South Carolina DE D.J. Wonnum .
Wonnum is joining a Vikings defensive ends group that is returning Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo, who saw significant playing time in 2019. Stacy Keely signed with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent last spring, and the Vikings also added Eddie Yarbrough and Anthony Zettel.
Stephenson called Wonnum "self-made" and said he possesses several traits that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Patterson look for in defensive ends.
Stephenson specifically pointed to South Carolina's games against Georgia and Kentucky. Wonnum tallied 3.0 sacks for 25 lost yards against the Wildcats.
"When you turn on the tape, you watch him against Georgia and those two offensive tackles (Isaiah Wilson and Andrew Thomas), and he played really well in that game. That was kind of our litmus test for a lot of these defensive linemen," Stephenson said. "Then you watch him against [Kentucky], and that was one of his better games.
"That one kind of put him on the map," he added. "He's long, he's athletic, he's very coachable, a good kid off the field, so he fits the Viking mold, for sure."
"I'm excited about this young man. He's long, he's athletic, he can run, but most importantly, he's very smart. … I know everyone out there is trying to compare him to Danielle Hunter because their numbers are similar. But people forget, the year after we took D, we took Stephen Weatherly. They had the same type of numbers as far as height, length and athleticism. Those guys are hard to find that fit all that criteria. So this young man had that. I was excited that we were able to get him, so now it's just a matter of him going to work and me going to work and trying to bring the best out of him. I want him to become the best D.J. Wonnum that he can become. I don't want him to be the next Danielle Hunter; I'm not trying to make him the next Danielle Hunter. I'm trying to make him the best D.J. Wonnum that he can be. And I think if we can get that to happen, all of us will be very happy to have this guy on our team."
— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson
Film Breakdown: Former Vikings linebacker and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, analyzed some of Wonnum's tape from South Carolina.
Bercich pointed out that drafting defensive linemen in the fourth round is nothing new for the Vikings, who also have selected Griffen (100th overall), Johnson (109th) and Holmes (102nd) there.
"Pass rushing is really his forte, and I think a couple of things make him so good," Bercich said. "Number one is his ability to get off the football – he's quick off the ball – and secondly, he's able to apply pressure to an offensive lineman and then use different moves, like the swim, to get around them."
Bercich highlighted a play from South Carolina's game against Georgia in which Wonnum "gets head up" with the Bulldogs left tackle (Thomas) to check the run; upon realizing it's a pass play, he "works himself with his speed, with those long arms and that leverage, all the way around the tackle" to make a sack.
"Our defensive linemen do this," Bercich explained. "So when Wonnum gets here, that's not going to be a new technique for him. He's going to be very well-versed in stopping the run and then readjusting and rushing the passer."
Player Profile: DT James Lynch, Baylor, Junior
Lynch measured 6-foot-4 and 289 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he met formally with the Vikings and tabbed them as a team he'd like to play for.
"You see the way the d-line plays and the way their team plays and the way that their d-line has grown, you see a good defense, and they're salty," said Lynch, who received a vote of approval from Vikings Hall of Famer John Randle.
Lynch got his wish when Minnesota drafted the 21-year-old from the 130th overall spot.
In 2019, Lynch led Baylor with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, ranking in the top 10 nationally in both categories. He added three forced fumbles, five passes broken up and two blocked kicks. He was named First-Team All-American by TheAssociated Press and also earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
ESPN Media analyst Mel Kiper said he was a "big fan of James Lynch" over the three seasons he played for the Bears.
"You think about a guy with scheme versatility, had 19.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 of those were sacks," Kiper said. "[He] uses his hands extremely well, can win outside, inside, plays with really good power, never lacked for effort. You've got to like James Lynch. If you watched him at Baylor throughout his career, what a football player, a key guy in every game, got into that backfield and wreaked havoc against the run and got the sack numbers that you want, as well."
Although Lynch did get some reps at defensive end for Baylor, he primarily played on the interior.
He's expected to do the same in Minnesota, where he will most likely begin work at the 3-technique.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman told Twin Cities media members that the 2020 draft class was a strong one for defensive tackles.
"I think a lot of them went in the second round, there were about five or six of them there, and then we stacked Lynch up against some of those guys, as well, and felt like he has a very good chance of, once we've slotted him inside full-time, to go and compete," Spielman said.
Lynch joins a defensive tackles group that also returned Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes. The Vikings use a rotation on the defensive line and also invoke specialization for certain situations. How quickly could Lynch make an impact?
"He's going to have to come in and earn it, for sure. He's a talented player, but he's still a young guy; he came out as a junior," Stephenson said. "There's going to be some technical work, for sure, but we feel confident [that Patterson's] going to bring the best out of them. And all those guys are going to compete."
View images of Vikings fourth round draft pick Baylor DT James Lynch.
"James had a great career at Baylor. He's a high-motor kid that plays with physicality and has great strength. They played him at defensive end, outside the tackle, and then they kicked him down inside over the guard. And where he played, for him to get 14.5 sacks last year was outstanding. He has a natural feel of how to rush the passer. Another smart guy that gets it. He understands that it's about the team, it's about hard work, so he's going to fit into my room great, and we're going to play him at 3-technique. I was real excited to have a chance to get him."
— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson
"The first thing that stands out about Lynch is his toughness," Bercich said. "He likes to be disruptive."
Bercich called Lynch a "strong, stout" type of pass rusher and pointed out that while he did take reps at defensive end for Baylor, he will be an "interior specialist" for Minnesota.
"When he tackles you, at 6-4, 290 [pounds], you're not going to go forward; you're going to go backward," Bercich said. "Teams made the mistake of not wanting to block him and turning him loose, and he absolutely made them pay."
He highlighted Lynch's persistence on plays helping him get to the quarterback.
"Many times, you're not going to get there on the initial rush, making the quarterback step up, but Lynch has enough power and speed to get around the outside and eventually make the play," Bercich said.
Player Profile: DE Kenny Willekes, Michigan State, Redshirt junior
Patterson got his third defensive lineman of the day when the Vikings tabbed Willekes in the seventh round from the 225th overall spot.
Willekes is listed at 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds and is the Spartans all-time leader with 51 tackles for loss. He earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors in 2018 and 2019 and also was Michigan State's MVP those years.
In 2019, Willekes totaled 78 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Following the campaign, he was awarded the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy for the nation's best former walk-on at the Division-I level.
His 26.0 career sacks rank third in Michigan State history.
"I'm no stranger to adversity, I'm no stranger to hard work, and it doesn't matter to me – I said this many times in the process – it doesn't matter to me where I get picked," Willekes told Twin Cities media members. "Whatever team [picked] me, whatever team [took] a chance on me, I'm going to show up, I'm going to be all-in and I'm going to be ready to work."
View images of Vikings new DE Kenny Willekes from his days at MSU.
Along with Wonnum, Willekes will have the opportunity to vie for a spot in Minnesota's defensive ends group.
Although he was a seventh-round selection, Patterson said the Vikings actually considered drafting him as early as the fourth, and he could prove to be another hidden gem for Minnesota's defensive line.
Willekes credited the Spartans defensive scheme for his ability to rack up the tackles for loss and hopes to find those same opportunities at the NFL level.
"They allowed me to be a little bit of a free player, and they stunted me a lot inside, something we worked on every day with [defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough] – our one-gap footwork, our two-gap footwork," he explained. "It was something we focused on every day. When I got the ability to do it in games and they gave me the opportunity to stunt, I was able to get in there and make plays."
Coachspeak: "Ah, man. He's a hardworking dude. … [There's] no way we thought he would still be sitting there in the seventh round, and when [he] became available, we wanted to jump on that all the way. He's a young man that came from being a walk-on at Michigan State, to earning a scholarship, to becoming All-Big Ten. So he's earned everything that he's gotten. I love his temperament, I love how hard he plays, how much of a competitor he is, and he's got some flexibility to his game, too. I know he's going to fit into our room, and he's going to compete his tail off, and that's the most important thing."
— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson
"Kenny Willekes is a motor. He's a guy that has a lot of enthusiasm for the game," Bercich said.
Bercich pointed out that you may not get players with the fastest 40 times in the seventh round, but you're going to "get the guys who love football."
He made comparisons between Willekes and Hall of Famer John Randle, the undrafted eventual Hall of Famer whom Bercich played with in Minnesota.
"You watch this young man on film – he loves the game, and he's very, very good at his technique," Bercich said. "He's very, very good with using his hands, and he's good at using leverage – he plays the low-pad level. These are all the tools that someone like Andre Patterson's going to look for in a young defensive lineman and try to develop those."
Bercich used film clips to illustrate the above qualities, starting with his pad level – "the low man wins" – and use of his hands and leverage. He pointed to the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl in which Willekes was lined up at defensive end across from Wake Forest tight end Brandon Chapman.
"A defensive end 1-on-1 with a tight end, they need to win that battle all the time," Bercich explained. "He has a great feel for the rush, meaning that when he gets up-field, he feels the quarterback pull the ball down and try to get through that gap that's showing up right in front of him. When that happens, [Willekes] comes underneath, right at the right time, and then [wraps up the tackle], lifts the quarterback and puts him on the ground.
"Those are the little things that guys do that you love to see," Bercich added.