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Lunchbreak: Evaluating Areas of Improvement for Vikings Pass Rush

As is the case with every NFL team's offseason, important questions such as "Who will be drafted?" and "Which current players stay on the roster next season?" will be asked.

Another crucial query that can be asked dives beyond the surface of the roster, but might have a simpler answer:

How can the offense/defense/special teams improve from last year?

The Vikings will explore all those phases, particularly defensively after Minnesota finished near the bottom of the NFL in several categories.

Minnesota was 31st in the league in yards allowed per game (388.7). The Vikings pass rush ranked slightly higher, finishing 21st in sacks, 19th in pressure rate, 22nd in quarterback hits and 23rd in sack rate, according to TruMedia.

Alec Lewis of The Athletic broke down Minnesota's pass rush performance from the 2022 season and how the Vikings can improve on their numbers.

Lewis wrote Minnesota rarely strayed away from using a four-man pass rush when it was on defense.

The Vikings utilized a four-man pass rush on 76.6 percent of their defensive snaps against the pass, which was more than any team besides the Titans.

The Vikings ranked fourth in the NFL in hurries behind the Cowboys, Patriots and Titans. Hurries, however, come nowhere close to impacting games the way sacks do, as outlets like Pro Football Focus have outlined.

Minnesota's pass rush was effective in terms of forcing opposing quarterbacks to decide quickly, as it was the third-best team in the NFL in making opponents get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or fewer.

That statistic was a double-edged sword, though, as quarterbacks had the second-highest completion percentage (77.1 percent) and the third-best yards per play (6.96) on those Vikings pass rushes.

Lewis also analyzed how each Minnesota pass rusher ranked in sacks, pressures and win rate.

View the best photos of the Vikings outside linebackers, ZaDarius Smith, Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II and Luiji Villian during the 2022 season.

Here are the results (sacks/pressures/win rate):

— Danielle Hunter (17th/tied for 7th/12th)

— Za'Darius Smith (19th/fourth/fourth)

— Dalvin Tomlinson (tied for 158th/tied for 106th/tied for 54th)

— Harrison Phillips (tied for 229th/tied for 130th/tied for 173rd)

— D.J. Wonnum (tied for 96th/tied for 86th/tied for 74th)

— Pat Jones II (tied for 96th/tied for 209th/tied for 111th)

The sack and pressure rankings feature a sample size of 389 players, whereas the win rate numbers include 200 players. Both groups confirm what is obvious: Hunter and Smith were the Vikings pass rush.

Smith had the initial success, recording 8.5 sacks and 46 pressures during the first nine weeks of the season, which ranked tied for second and first in the NFL, respectively. Six-and-a-half of Smith's sacks and 22 of his pressures during that span came in October alone, helping him earn NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors.

But Smith saw a sharp decline in the second half of the season, registering just 1.5 sacks and 32 pressures. Hunter, however, rose to the occasion, recording 5.5 sacks (18th in the NFL) and 37 pressures (eighth) in the final nine weeks.

Lewis noted that Smith and Hunter's success in 2022 came in different ways. He wrote:

All of Hunter's sacks happened on snaps that began with him lined up on the edge. Additionally, he amassed all of them with his hands on the ground before the snap. Smith, on the other hand, succeeded primarily from a stand-up position. He decimated offensive linemen in multiple spots along the line of scrimmage. Neither player racked up a single sack on a stunt or twist.

These factors matter in the overall evaluation of this season. Working mostly on their own, and despite often being outnumbered against opposing offensive lines (with four rushers against five offensive linemen), Smith and Hunter held their own.

Lewis added finding solutions to the Vikings pass rush and secondary issues from 2022 will be among the challenges the franchise's next defensive coordinator will face.

Top standouts & takeaways from the first day of 2023 Senior Bowl practices

NFL teams got a glimpse at the future Tuesday when more than 100 draft-eligible prospects started practicing for the upcoming Reese's Senior Bowl, which will take place at 1:30 p.m. (CT) Saturday on NFL Network.

Lance Zierlein and Eric Edholm of looked at Tuesday's practice and identified five key players and takeaways.

Zierlein wrote two Big Ten offensive linemen — Ohio State University tackle Dawand Jones and University of Minnesota center John Michael Schmitz impressed him up front.

Jones is the biggest and longest prospect at the Senior Bowl (6-foot-8, 375 pounds). He looked like a mountain of a man on the practice field Tuesday. I have some concerns about the way Jones redirects his weight and keeps his balance against movement up front, but he had a rock-solid performance in his first practice of the week. In both his run-blocking and pass-protection reps, he was effective in using his frame against opponents. The former Buckeye was able to envelop and halt his challengers more times than not.

Schmitz came into the week with a chance to challenge for the title of top center in the draft. He might leave Mobile with that title and put himself squarely in the conversation for Round 1. Schmitz showed off plenty of core strength and leverage to battle against stronger players. He might be more than just a zone-scheme center — the ability to play in multiple schemes would elevate his draft stock.

Zierlein added Oregon State University tight end Luke Musgrave was another offensive standout. He wrote:

Musgrave was already considered one of the better tight ends in a strong class at the position this year, but I came away even more impressed after getting a chance to see him in person for the first time on Tuesday.

He has a well-proportioned 255-pound frame that made him stand out from the rest of the players in his Senior Bowl position group. He's coming back from a knee injury that limited him to two games last season and was cleared to run routes just a few weeks ago, but you would never know it based on the way he buzzed around the field in Mobile.

Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Za'Darius Smith, T.J. Hockenson, Andrew DePaola, Dalvin Cook and Danielle Hunter are representing the Vikings at the 2023 Pro Bowl Games.

Edholm, meanwhile, noted Texas Christian University quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan and University of Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell overcame early obstacles for an overall strong outing. He wrote:

Duggan started slowly in individual work and had his pass jumped by Alabama's DeMarcco Hellams for an interception in 7-on-7 work.

But in full-team reps, Duggan started to shine. He completed all five of his passes in the session, twice sidestepping the rush to find Ole Miss wide receiver Jonathan Mingo, who also had a good day.

It was a nice start to the week for Duggan, an unorthodox passer who nonetheless has helped his stock noticeably over the past six months.

Bell battled through a dropped catch before showing improvements later in the day.

[Bell] showed the ability to adjust to off-target throws and catch balls outside his frame. Bell said the latter was something he especially wanted to display this week.

"Without a doubt," Bell said, "it's got to be in my heart, you know, to be able to catch anything thrown at me, so if it's close, I definitely have to put it on display that I can do that. I'm not the biggest guy (5-foot-11, 192 pounds), but I have the reach (31 1/8-inch arms) to make those plays."