Not only did the Minnesota Vikings draft D.J. Wonnum in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, they made it very clear that he was highly coveted by defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson. Patterson is a well-revered coach who has had great success with many young pass rushers. He helped Everson Griffen become a great pass rusher, and he also helped players like Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo reach their potential.
While many players thrive under Patterson’s tutelage, there have been a few who haven’t been able to hone their skills into becoming a consistent and capable player. The name that immediately comes to mind is fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes. After two full seasons in the league, Holmes hasn’t come close to being the player the Vikings thought they were getting back in 2018. The question now can be asked, will Wonnum end up more like Hunter or Holmes?
Danielle Hunter exceeded expectations
The Vikings selected Hunter in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The 6’5″, 255-pound defensive end decided to leave LSU after his junior season, finishing his college career with 142 career tackles, 4.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He was seen as a prospect with a very high ceiling, but someone who wouldn’t help a team out early in his career. He was expected to need at least one year of grooming before he would see the field on a consistent basis.
That turned out to be partially true. Hunter mostly played a rotational role during his rookie season but made one start and finished with six sacks and 33 tackles. In his second season, he continued to play as a situational pass rusher, but his sack total jumped to 12.5. Hunter clearly was implementing what he was learning from Patterson, and by Year 3 he started all 16 regular season games.
Hunter has since gone on to become one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. He has 276 career tackles with 54.5 sacks, and 67 tackles for loss. There’s no doubt he’s proof of concept for Patterson, and easily sets the bar for any young Vikings pass rushers to reach.
Jalyn Holmes sets a floor
Holmes was taken by the Vikings in the fourth round of the 2018 draft after four seasons at Ohio State, mostly as a defensive end. His collegiate statistics weren’t overly impressive: He had 85 total tackles, five sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The Vikings decided they’d move the 6’5″, 280-pound Holmes inside and try him as a three-technique defensive tackle. This move excited many fans, and there was a wide belief that Holmes pass-rushing skills would pay dividends in the middle and give the Vikings the young interior disruptor they had been looking for.
After two full seasons in the league, Holmes hasn’t become the interior pass rusher the Vikings envisioned he could be. He has appeared in just 11 career games only made seven total tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. This year, Holmes entered training camp on the roster bubble and has since been converted back to defensive end. That position switch could be good for him: The competition to make the roster at end isn’t as daunting as it is at defensive tackle.
Where Hunter set the ceiling to what a prospect can become with the coaching of Patterson, Holmes set the floor. Having just one sack, seven tackles and a position switch after two seasons isn’t what the Vikings were anticipating when they took this big man in the draft.
How does Wonnum compare to Hunter and Holmes?
Wonnum, like Holmes, was a four-year player in college and a fourth round choice of the Vikings. At South Carolina he racked up 137 total tackles, with 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Of these three players, he was the most productive in college, even though Hunter had a few more tackles than he did.
As far as athletic ability goes, Wonnum compares closer to Holmes than Hunter.
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Those athletic numbers don’t bode well for Wonnum to be more like Hunter. He also is similar to Holmes in that he played different positions in college. Wonnum spent some time at linebacker, where Holmes was converted after college to defensive tackle. The Vikings aren’t going to switch Wonnum to linebacker any time soon; they will exclusively play him at defensive end, and that should expedite his development.
One thing that is hard to measure is a young prospect’s heart and desire to be great. Other than face to face interviews, there’s no way to measure this in a player. One area to look at is if these players were leaders in college. Wonnum was definitely that, he was named a team captain twice in his career with the Gamecocks. He also battled through injuries in 2018 to come back fully healthy in 2019, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Patterson definitely has plenty of raw tools and ability to work with in Wonnum. If they keep him at defensive end and don’t try him at a new position as they did with Holmes there’s no reason to believe he won’t end up closer to Hunter than Holmes. While he likely won’t hit the high standard that Hunter set, he should be far above the floor that Holmes is on.