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2022 Vikings Position Recap: Outside Linebackers

EAGAN, Minn. — The 2022 Vikings welcomed Za'Darius Smith to the organization and brought Danielle Hunter back into the fold after two seasons shortened by injuries.

Smith started his first season with Minnesota ablaze, and Hunter adjusted to a new defense and different responsibilities as the Vikings implemented a 3-4 base for the first time since 1985.

Smith finished with 10 sacks, and Hunter led the team with 10.5, becoming the first set of Vikings teammates to record double-digit sacks since Kevin Williams (11.5) and Lance Johnstone (11) in 2004.

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.

Beyond those numbers, Smith led Minnesota with 24 quarterback hits (his third-highest total for a season), and Hunter recorded 22, tying his personal best from 2019.

Both players recorded career highs in passes defended, with Smith registering five to bring his career total to 12 and Hunter's three lifting his total to six.

Notable Number: 21.8 percent

According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Smith recorded a pass rush win rate of 21.8 percent, which ranked fourth in the NFL among players with a minimum of 400 snaps last season.

The only three players with a better pass rush win rate were Cleveland's Myles Garrett (25.6 percent), San Francisco's Nick Bosa (24.8) and Dallas' Micah Parsons (22.9).

View photos of Vikings Legend Jared Allen during his 2022 Ring of Honor induction ceremony at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Memorable Moment

A horseback ride to the Vikings Ring of Honor by Jared Allen at halftime is of course going to be paired with a big day from Vikings pass rushers.

Smith led the charge with 3.0 sacks and four tackles for loss of Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. He also recorded one of nine passes defended by Minnesota, and so did Hunter, who added a tackle for loss and quarterback hit. Wonnum chipped in three tackles, and Jones also added a tackle for loss.

Smith's performance helped him garner NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 8 and NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October and complemented Allen's dramatic entry on a jet-black Friesian gelding named Coolio.

Regular-Season Statistics

Danielle Hunter

65 tackles (46 solo), 10.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hits, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble; started all 17 games and played 906 of 1,161 defensive snaps (78.0 percent)

Za'Darius Smith

44 tackles (32 solo), 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 24 quarterback hits, 5 passes defended, 1 forced fumble; started all 16 games he appeared in (coach's decision for finale against Bears) and played 771 of 1,161 defensive snaps (66.4 percent)

D.J. Wonnum

34 tackles (23 solo), 4.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 1 forced fumble; appeared in 16 games with one start and played 582 of 1,161 defensive snaps (50.1 percent)

Pat Jones II

21 tackles (12 solo), 4.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits; appeared in 16 games and played 306 of 1,161 defensive snaps (26.4 percent)

Luiji Vilain

2 tackles (1 solo); appeared in three games and played 34 of 1,161 defensive snaps (2.9 percent)

The highest high

1. Welcome to Miami

The "Edge Department" provided exactly that for Minnesota in the Vikings 24-16 win over the Dolphins at Miami in Week 6.

Outside Linebackers Coach/Pass Rush Specialist Mike Smith coined the nickname for his position group, and the players combined to record five of Minnesota's season-high six sacks.

Za'Darius Smith notched 2.0, and Pat Jones II recorded the first 2.0 sacks of his career. Hunter added another on a day when Minnesota racked up 13 quarterback hits and forced two interceptions.

The lowest low

1. Hurts both ways

One week after an impressive debut in against Green Bay in Week 1, the Vikings defense struggled to contain Philadelphia's run and pass game on Monday Night Football.

Jalen Hurts completed 26 of 31 passes for 333 yards with a 53-yard touchdown and a passer rating of 108.7.

The MVP candidate also did plenty of damage on the ground, rushing 11 times for 57 yards and two touchdowns, which included a 26-yard score.

While the entire defense struggled, the inability to minimize either of Hurts' dual threats proved critical in a 24-7 loss.

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.

2 pressing questions for 2023

1. How will the new coordinator approach the position group?

With the Vikings set to hire a new defensive coordinator in 2023 (for the second year in a row), it remains to be seen if Minnesota sticks with a 3-4 base that utilized Smith and Hunter as outside linebackers or shifts back to a 4-3 with defensive ends.

Smith has spent his career in 3-4 bases, so it might require an adjustment for him, but switching back also could play more to Hunter's strengths. It's possible that either could be used more as specialty chess pieces to find mismatches on passing downs next season.

In any case, there's likely an opportunity to have Smith, Hunter and other edge players going toward opposing quarterbacks more often in 2023.

2. Will the Vikings place more emphasis on the position in the draft?

Selected 88th overall in 2015, Hunter is the highest-drafted player among Vikings edge defenders. Minnesota relied on a draft-and-develop model for years when it had Everson Griffen and Brian Robison as starting defensive ends, and that worked again with Hunter, but perhaps the Vikings will use a higher pick to add another threat to the group this year?

The Vikings had multiple holes to plug in General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah's first draft and opted to go with a safety (Lewis Cine), cornerback (Andrew Booth, Jr.) and inside linebacker (Brian Asamoah II) with three of their first four picks in 2022. Cine and Booth both suffered injuries beyond anyone's control to shorten their rookie seasons, but they are expected to return next season.