The optimism surrounding the Minnesota Vikings took a big hit on Wednesday when the team announced that Danielle Hunter was placed on injured reserve. Hunter’s injury is still unknown outside of Mike Zimmer describing it as “a tweak,” but the injury is bad enough to sideline Hunter for at least the first three games of the season.
Taking a look at the schedule, that doesn’t seem as bad in Weeks 2 and 3 when the Vikings will take on the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. But the Vikings will be concerned about the absence of Hunter during an important divisional matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
Replacing Hunter’s ability vs. the run
The pass rush will be hurt with Hunter on the sidelines. Both Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson offer next to nothing in the pass-rushing department. However, that can be made up with the presence of Ifeadi Odenigbo and new acquisition Yannick Ngakoue.
Where the Vikings will really miss Hunter is stopping the run. As mentioned earlier this week, the Packers’ offseason plan screamed that they want to run the ball more than they did in 2019. Whereas Ngakoue and Odenigbo are sufficient pass-rushers on the outside, their run-stopping prowess leaves something to be desired according to their Pro Football Focus metrics.
|Danielle Hunter||Ifeadi Odenigbo||Yannick Ngakoue|
|PFF Run Grade||76.8 (14th)||60.1 (81st)||57.6 (112th)|
|PFF Tackle Grade||72.7 (11th)||56.3 (47th)||30.0 (112th)|
|Run Stops||20 (12th)||4 (104th)||21 (9th)|
|Run Stop Percentage||6.5% (47th)||4.3% (90th)||7.6% (33rd)|
While Ngakoue has had success bringing opponents down in the backfield, the odds of him wrapping up and bringing to them to the ground are uncertain. With the Packers likely to lean on Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, the Vikings will have to figure out how to atone for Hunter’s ability to stop the run or be treated to a one-way ticket to “Thighland.”
The “mystery Man”
Much like Zimmer tried to be coy about the exact status of Hunter throughout training camp, Matt LeFleur has been trying to hide who the right tackle will be for the Packers on Sunday. After going as far as to label the potential starter as “the mystery man,” it will be interesting to see who Green Bay leans on.
Billy Turner is listed as the starter at right tackle on the Packers’ depth chart, but he also missed practice on Wednesday due to a knee injury. If he can’t go, Green Bay will likely turn to free-agent pickup Ricky Wagner, which would be great news for the Vikings.
The Packers signed Wagner this offseason hoping that he could provide a little more health than his predecessor Bryan Bulaga. After injuring his arm in a scrimmage, it looked like he could have been on his way out — but instead he may have been kept out of necessity.
Wagner was a mess last year in Detroit: He allowed 33 pressures and four sacks in 12 games. In addition, Wagner was 56th among qualifying tackles in pass-blocking efficiency (95.7) and allowed four pressures in the Week 7 matchup with the Vikings last season. Although he didn’t allow a single pressure in their Week 14 meeting, Wagner only played 35 snaps in that game, meaning there’s a chance he could be exploited.
If Hunter were lining up across from him, this would be a big deal for the Vikings as they look to get in Aaron Rodgers‘ face to help their young cornerbacks. Instead, it may be more of a neutral matchup depending on who they tab to replace Hunter.
Who’s Up Next?
One of the big reasons why Minnesota made the trade for Ngakoue is because they probably didn’t like their options on the defensive line. Once Hunter went down with his “tweak,” the Vikings probably didn’t want to turn to Anthony Zettel, Stacy Keely or Eddie Yarbrough to replace him.
But the biggest condemnation with that trade may have been the performance of Odenigbo, who will now get another crack at being a starting defensive end.
On paper, Odenigbo had a great season, collecting seven sacks while bouncing around between the edge and interior. With a healthy Hunter, the Vikings wouldn’t need to change Odenigbo’s role, using him as a three-technique next to Stephen while adding interior pressure.
Now Minnesota has to use Odenigbo on the outside. That development may be insignificant: He posted a respectable 6.2 pass rusher productivity rating, 66th among qualifying defensive ends last season. However, it might mean more to the interior of the line which became a massive weakness in the wake of Michael Pierce‘s decision to opt-out.
With Hunter out the first three games, the Vikings are back to the pre-Ngakoue situation in the middle. While the coaching staff has praised Stephen and Johnson, neither are game-changers who can make big plays. Instead, the Vikings will be leaning on Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa and others to generate that pressure, which didn’t produce much success last season.
Either way, the loss of Hunter is a big one on the ground and through the air for the Vikings. If they can have someone step up in the middle, that might be enough to move the needle in an extremely important opening game.