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Camp Rewind: Vikings D-Line Features Young Stars, Emerging Players

EAGAN, Minn. — We've officially reached September, which means the countdown is on to the Week 1 Border Battle between the Vikings and Packers.

Minnesota has been hard at work in recent weeks at Verizon Vikings Training Camp, as players looked to solidify starting roles and carve out playing time for themselves.

Friday's practice, which is closed to the media at the start of team drills, is the final one before roster cuts.

So we're taking a look at where four key positions are at after being able to watch 13 practices, including one at U.S. Bank Stadium.

We started our Camp Rewind series with a recap of cornerbacks, and then looked at the wide receivers, and the offensive line. We'll conclude this series with a look at the defensive line.

Pre-camp chatter

The Vikings defensive line predominantly featured a quartet of Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen over the past five seasons, and Minnesota was known for its menacing front four.

But that starting group underwent a makeover this offseason, as Griffen is now with the Cowboys and Joseph is with the Chargers.

The Vikings still featured notable names such as Hunter and Stephen — plus Ifeadi Odenigbo after his 7.0-sack performance in 2019 — but questions lingered on the interior.

Minnesota seemingly got its answer with the addition of nose tackle Michael Pierce, but the mammoth run-stuffer opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

With playing time now up for grabs again, how would the likes of Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts and Hercules Mata'afa fare in camp? And what potential did draft picks such as fourth-rounders D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch have, along with seventh-rounder Kenny Willekes.

The Vikings also had a handful of veteran defensive ends on the roster in Jalyn Holmes, Eddie Yarbrough and Anthony Zettel.

It would be up to Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson, who is also the defensive line coach, to get his unit ready to go for Week 1.

View photos of Vikings players from Verizon Vikings Training Camp practice at TCO Performance Center.

Where are they now?

Hunter has missed almost the entirety of training camp. But when healthy, he has proven to be among the league's most dominant defensive players.

The Vikings made a splash move earlier this week, trading for Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Minnesota sent a 2021 second-round pick, and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to Jacksonville in the deal.

The addition of Ngakoue to work with Hunter provides the Vikings with a pair of Pro Bowl edge rushers.

Ngakoue has plenty of talent, too, as evident by his 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in his first four seasons in the league. He also had an up-close view of the Vikings back in 2018 when the Jaguars were in town for joint practices and a preseason game.

"I could tell that this was a special place back when we had the joint practices with the way everything is run," Ngakoue said. "Coach Zim' does a great job of taking care of everybody, making sure everyone is fresh and ready to go the next day.

"I saw that back in the preseason when we had that joint practice," Ngakoue added, "so actually being able to live in it and absorb the energy of being a player here, I feel like this is a special place."

While Odenigbo might not be a full-time starter in 2020, he allows the Vikings to have a strong stable of pass rushers at their disposal, especially on third downs.

"You're always looking for as many pass rushers as you can get," Patterson said. "You can never have too many guys that can rush the passer, and you can never have too many guys that can cover a receiver. That's something that you're always looking for. You're always trying to gain as many of those guys as you can.

"We've got excellent pass rushers here, obviously, in Danielle and Ifeadi, and Armon Watts has some pass rush skill to him, too," Patterson added. "Whenever you get a chance to add another guy to the mix, that helps you out."

Stephen isn't likely to win any yearly awards or rack up stats, but his presence on the defensive line frees up linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to chase down the ball.

Johnson and Watts both offer upside on the interior, as does Mata'afa, who has added weight and put in a strong camp performance as a situational pass rusher.

Holmes switched from defensive tackle to defensive end, where he primarily played in college, and Yarbrough has picked up the system after coming from Buffalo. Zettel was released earlier this week.

Wonnum and Lynch have shown flashes throughout camp, but neither will be required to log heavy minutes as rookies. But they both offer upside, especially as they continue to learn under Patterson.

It may take some time for Ngakoue to learn the Vikings system as gets accustomed to Minnesota. But if everyone is healthy, the Vikings should once again boast one of the league's top defensive lines.

Standout player(s)

The man responsible for filling Joseph's shoes was up to a tall task, but it appeared Pierce was ready to be that guy.

But with Pierce opting out — and Stephen primarily lining up at nose tackle in camp — that opened up a hole at the 3-technqiue spot.

The duo of Johnson and Watts have filled that role admirably, as both offer versatility in stopping the run and getting to the quarterback.

"I like my combination of guys that I have inside," "Patterson said. "We move those guys around and play them in different spots at nose and [3-technique]. I really like that group, and I think they're going to play really well for us this year."

Patterson noted he expects a handful of players to play on the interior this season, with the combination of Stephen, Johnson and Watts having the ability to move from nose tackle to the 3-technique spot.

Johnson and Watts might alternate starts or playing time based on the opposing offensive scheme, but that duo should work together with Stephen to help solidify the interior of Minnesota's defensive line.