EAGAN, Minn. — Ed Donatell will have plenty of time to assess the new-look Vikings defense and the 11 players who embody it at any moment.
Donatell's priorities in non-padded, voluntary Organized Team Activity practices have been placed on building connectivity with the coaching staff and learning more about how players learn.
The coaching veteran is preparing for his 43rd season of coaching, 32nd in the NFL and first as Minnesota's defensive coordinator. Donatell is likely to incorporate more 3-4 principles that the Vikings "dabbled" in last season although primarily using a 4-3 as its base in most previous seasons.
View photos from the Vikings OTA practice which took place on May 24 at the TCO Performance Center.
Donatell said the Vikings defense doesn't know ahead of time what the offense plans to try, but he anticipates the "cutting edge schemes and formations" implemented by Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips "can only help us get better."
"It's just about getting 11 on each side better, and it's a real great working relationship between the coaches right now," Donatell said after Tuesday's fifth OTA practice of 2022. "I can't say enough about this staff all the way through special teams with [Special Teams Coordinator] Matt [Daniels] and Wes and our defensive staff. These are guys – I've only [previously] worked with one guy [on defense], Roy Anderson [in Chicago from 2017-18] – they've come together. It's a very talented staff and a cohesive staff.
"Really as a staff and as players, we've been deliberate about connecting," Donatell said. "We've done exercises to be deliberate about connecting our team and connecting our coaches with our players. We're further along than we've ever been because it's been a major focus."
Vikings defensive coaches intend to have 11 playing as one and ready to adapt to changes throughout the season or within an additional game.
"The game's changed a lot. I've been in the league 30 years, and your job on defense is to adapt," Donatell said. "We're still doing that with the quarterback runs and the shotgun, and the zone-read, that's made us adjust. It's ongoing in this league."
One of the biggest current challenges facing defenses is the way offenses can create space to capitalize on players' speed.
Inside linebackers like veterans Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, as well as draft pick Brian Asamoah, reflect defenses incorporating lighter, faster players instead of the heavier thumpers of yesteryear.
"In today's ball right now, there's so much space. And everybody's linebackers have gotta be able to run," Donatell said. "To have these guys that can run — Eric — it really helps. We drafted Brian, he has really good speed, so it's really good to have that for our defense."
The Vikings defense has a blend of returning veterans who have been here their entire careers like Kendricks, safety Harrison Smith and edge rusher Danielle Hunter, as well as players who have been parts of other teams like defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips, plus edge rusher Za'Darius Smith.
"They were dabbling with some [odd-man front] stuff [last year], but [Tomlinson is] an inherently tough inside player," Donatell said when asked about the 2021 free agent signee. "So he's going to be an advantage for any scheme. But he fits well."
Tomlinson said the 3-4 concepts have taken him back to his collegiate career at Alabama, and that's not just because he was coached early in his time with the Crimson Tide by Vikings defensive line coach Chris Rumph. The reunion with Rumph has been a nice bonus.
"That's my guy. I feel like we're back at freshman and sophomore year at Alabama," Tomlinson said. "A lot of jokes, just reminiscing on old times back then. This coaching staff is super positive energy across the whole board."