EAGAN, Minn. — The NFL's New League Year is on the horizon.
It officially begins at 3 p.m. (CT) on March 16, which means the 2022 edition of free agency is also quickly approaching.
Vikings.com is providing a position-by-position outlook of Minnesota's roster ahead of free agency. We started with quarterbacks on Monday and continued Tuesday with running backs and receivers. On Wednesday, we covered offensive linemen and tight ends. Today, we're pivoting to the defensive line.
The Vikings defense is expected to undergo changes brought by new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell and could include more 3-4 base principles than the 4-3 that Minnesota has used for years. This could lead to some defensive ends being categorized as edge rushers/outside linebackers, but we'll group all players currently listed as defensive ends with defensive tackles here.
Here's a look at which Vikings defensive ends and defensive tackles are scheduled to become free agents, Minnesota's potential needs, as well as notes on players from other teams that are set to become free agents.
UNDER CONTRACT: Danielle Hunter, Patrick Jones II, Janarius Robinson, Kenny Willekes and D.J. Wonnum
Hunter's return to the lineup after missing all of 2020 because of neck surgery for a training camp injury was felt immediately. He recorded 6.0 sacks in Minnesota's first five games of 2021 before suffering a torn pec that ended his season in Week 8.
Jones totaled 99 defensive snaps in nine games and recorded seven tackles, and his 2021 draft classmate Robinson flashed in the preseason before suffering a season-ending injury.
Willekes bounced back from a leg injury that cost him all of his 2020 rookie season and played with a combination of reckless abandon while staying within the system. He totaled 2.5 sacks and 18 tackles in six games last season.
Wonnum ended his second pro season on a high note with 2.0 sacks and seven tackles against the Bears. He also recorded 3.0 sacks when Minnesota visited Chicago three games earlier. Wonnum played outside linebacker in a 3-4 under Will Muschamp at South Carolina.
SCHEDULED TO BECOME FREE AGENTS:
Tashawn Bower (unrestricted free agent)
Originally an undrafted signee in 2017, Bower returned to Minnesota in November and played in four games as the Vikings tried to solidify their depth at defensive end.
Everson Griffen (unrestricted free agent)
Griffen's return to Minnesota after spending the 2020 season in Dallas and Detroit brought a spark to the Vikings. Initially intended to thrive in specific situations, Minnesota turned to Griffen for six starts and 457 snaps before he needed to step away from the game for personal reasons. He recorded 5.0 sacks to give him 79.5 in his career with Minnesota.
UNDER CONTRACT: James Lynch, T.Y. McGill, Michael Pierce, Jordon Scott, T.J. Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jaylen Twyman and Armon Watts
Pierce was the biggest defensive signing of 2020 but opted out because of COVID-19 concerns heightened by a preexisting condition. He recorded 2.0 sacks in his Vikings debut at Cincinnati but tried to play through an injury in Week 4 and wound up needing in-season surgery. He returned to the lineup in Week 13, but Minnesota never got to truly enjoy what it thought it would have by pairing Pierce with Tomlinson, the Vikings marquee 2021 signing up front.
Lynch, a fourth-round pick in 2020, showed a promising jump in his game last season.
Watts blossomed in his third pro season with 5.0 sacks.
Twyman is an intriguing prospect who was selected 199th overall last year, but he was forced to spend his rookie season on the Non-Football Injury list after he was a victim in a shooting.
SCHEDULED TO BECOME A FREE AGENT:
Sheldon Richardson (unrestricted free agent)
Richardson also returned to the Vikings in the offseason and was expected to thrive at the 3-technique as a situational pass rusher in 2021. A bevy of circumstances led to Minnesota experiencing an extreme lack of depth at defensive end, so the veteran kicked to the outside and started the final seven games at defensive end.
New Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said that he connected with Hunter and they talked about travel — "one of those things you love about an NFL relationship."
"Really good player. Incredible person," Adofo-Mensah said. "He is a really good football player, and to build championship teams you need a lot of really good football players. He is somebody who we want to continue to work with going forward, and we're excited to talk through all of the possibilities with that."
Donatell was quickly asked about Hunter's potential role and said he'll be an "outside linebacker/defensive end."
Both Donatell and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell have de-emphasized the 3-4 vs. 4-3 construct because of how often the Vikings expect to be in the nickel defense this season.
"When change happens, there's a lot of uncertainty and some people are uncomfortable with change. But we welcome that, that's a good thing. That's opportunity," Donatell said. "We don't know where we're going right now exactly. There's so much that our staff has to do and [I have] to do to learn our players, to learn our talents, to learn their minds. Our emphasis right now is to learn our people. And when you learn our people, you can take them somewhere, and that's what our intention is."
Incoming defensive line coach Chris Rumph coached Tomlinson at Alabama and has worked with some powerful interior linemen in recent years, including Bears DT Akiem Hicks last season.
WHO'S POTENTIALLY OUT THERE?
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently released his list of the top 101 potential free agents, with 24 edge rushers/defensive linemen/defensive tackles making the initial group.
The following edge rushers and defensive linemen are listed in order of their overall rankings: 3. Von Miller (edge), 5. Chandler Jones (edge), 9. Emmanuel Ogbah (edge), 16. Randy Gregory (edge), 17. Jadeveon Clowney (edge), 20. Calais Campbell (DL), 22. Haason Reddick (edge), 23. Melvin Ingram (edge), 27. D.J. Jones (DT), 28. Jerry Hughes (edge), 30. Hicks (DL), 46. Bilal Nichols (DL), 55. Foley Fatukasi (DT), 57. Justin Houston (edge), 63. Derek Barnett (edge), 67. Arden Key (edge), 68. Uchenna Nwosu (edge), 69. Sebastian Joseph-Day (DL), 70. B.J. Hill (DL), 72. Richardson (DT), 73. Ndamukong Suh (DL), 88. Larry Ogunjobi (DT), 92. Lorenzo Carter (edge) and 98. Harrison Phillips (DT)
The players listed by Rosenthal range from Miller, the Super Bowl 50 MVP who helped the Rams win it all last month after he was traded to Los Angeles, to veterans nearing the ends of their careers and some players who are still possibly heading toward their peaks.