EAGAN, Minn. — The public window of 2022 Vikings Training Camp practices at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center will open July 30 with Back Together Saturday.
To get you ready for the return of football, we're going through a position-by-position preview of the Vikings. We've already covered the offense week with stories on quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and the offensive line. Minnesota's defensive line started our focus on that side of the ball, which is now continuing with outside linebackers.
Returning starters: Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum opened games as 4-3 defensive ends last season and are now with the outside linebackers, thanks to Minnesota shifting to a base 3-4. It's likely Minnesota's intent that Hunter and free agent signee Za'Darius Smith will open Week 1 against Green Bay.
Also on the roster (listed alphabetically by last name): Patrick Jones II, Zach McCloud, Andre Mintze, Janarius Robinson and Luiji Vilain
2021 recap: After missing all of 2020 with a neck injury sustained before pads went on during training camp, Hunter returned in 2021 and quickly yielded fruit of his rehab efforts. He recorded 6.0 sacks in Minnesota's first seven games but left the Vikings contest against the Cowboys after tearing a pectoral muscle. Wonnum started 14 of the 17 games he played in his second pro season and led Minnesota with 8.0 sacks, including 5.0 over the course of two games against the Bears. Everson Griffen played well before needing to step away from the game. Sheldon Richardson kicked out from defensive tackle to defensive end late in the season to help Minnesota's depth.
View the best photos of Vikings DE D.J. Wonnum from the 2021 season.
3 Key Questions for the Vikings Outside Linebackers
1. What challenges are ahead for players who have been defensive ends?
The Vikings dabbled a bit with some 3-4 principles last year. Hunter this offseason mentioned a bit of overlap with how Minnesota approached its game at Arizona last season in which he recorded 3.0 sacks of Kyler Murray.
Potential changes could include lining up in a 2-point stance instead of a 3-point stance before snaps, as well as some responsibility differences within types of plays.
Defensive players can often make their biggest impacts when they are able to react quickly or even anticipate before something happens. Those abilities are best helped when players are comfortable with what they are asked to do, so it will be important for the outside linebackers to maximize their comfort while ramping up to the regular season.
Wonnum played 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker in college at South Carolina. He detailed that process as Minnesota was exploring options with him during last year's training camp.
Smith's presence and volume of previous experience should help everybody in the room implement the intricacies of the new system.
2. Can Hunter and Smith form one of the best pass rush duos in the game?
Smith's signing reunited him with former Packers assistant coaches Mike Pettine and Mike Smith. The coaching duo maximized his effectiveness in 2019-20 by making him a movable chess piece used to exploit mismatches.
Folks reading this might remember Smith racking up 3.5 sacks against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in December 2019 on the way to his first of consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
In 2019, Hunter recorded 14.5 sacks for the second consecutive year and earned his second Pro Bowl trip in as many seasons. Hunter and Smith connected at the all-star game and joked about one day joining forces beyond being NFC teammates.
Now, they're aiming to "meet at the quarterback" to rekindle the phrase that was a motto for the Purple People Eaters and emerge as one of the league's best duos.
Having combined for just eight regular-season games last year, Hunter and Smith will need to move past injuries from last season and hope for better luck this season.
It could work out that Wonnum mixes in and Minnesota enjoys the effectiveness that Hunter, Griffen and Brian Robison provided as a rotational trio in 2017.
3. Which less-experienced players will make the biggest marks?
Beyond those three, the Vikings position group is short on NFL experience.
Mintze was signed in June after Minnesota already had wrapped its offseason program, but he was with the Broncos last season along with Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell.
Jones and Robinson were selected in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, of the 2021 NFL Draft. Jones appeared in nine games, totaling seven tackles on 99 snaps.
Robinson missed all of his rookie season after landing on Injured Reserve.
McCloud showed versatility during his protracted time at Miami, and Vilain was a third-round pick in the CFL Draft out of Michigan before opting for another year of college at Wake Forest.
There's plenty of opportunities for Minnesota's less-experienced outside linebackers to make their mark, but who will do so?
It likely will be key for the Vikings to grow their depth behind Hunter and Smith to optimize their effectiveness.