Bolstering the Vikings’ Defense Starts With Prioritizing Edge Rusher

Photo Credit: Junfu Han via USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Minnesota Vikings’ defense started to look more like what longstanding fans of the team have become accustomed to. But the front office must further build upon the defense to return to a championship-level standard. Fortuitously, the upcoming draft class is brimming with defensive talent at all positions, giving the Vikings options at multiple positions with any of their selections.

Retaining Brian Flores is crucial to sparking defensive growth, and it looks like the defense’s architect, who stymied opposing offenses, will continue residing in the land of 10,000 lakes. Despite the pivotal nature of the defensive turnaround Flores inspired, no team with a coaching vacancy interviewed him, perhaps because of his active lawsuits against the NFL for racial discrimination.

As the season wore on and injuries mounted, opponents exposed fatal flaws in Flores’ stout defense. Minnesota’s defense finished 18th in EPA/Play allowed, allowed the 10th-most passing yards of any team, and struggled down the stretch as the offense stumbled through the quarterback carousel. Even then, a middling finish was a marked improvement from Ed Donatell’s 31st-ranked 2022 defense.

Danielle Hunter had an elite season under Flores, wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines on the way to finishing fifth in the NFL in sacks, breaking his prior highest single-season sack total of 14.5. D.J. Wonnum was his most productive counterpart, racking up eight sacks in 15 games, tying his career high in his fourth season.

Despite Hunter and Wonnum’s accomplishments, Minnesota’s defensive line lacked impact throughout the season. Only one player accumulated 25 pressures.

Fortunately, the Vikings have several channels to create an influx of talent. The 2024 draft class is filled with edge rushers, and the Vikings will have options at any pick. Elite prospects like Dallas Turner, Jared Verse, or Laiatu Latu could be viable options at pick No. 11. In the late first or early second round, less developed but still talented options like Chop Robinson, Chris Braswell, or Adisa Isaac are also workable options.

The likely availability of Turner at the 11th selection creates serious intrigue. The possibility of pairing a premier edge rushing prospect with Hunter, contract issues notwithstanding, must entice the Vikings.

Turner measures in at 6’4”, 242 lbs. — 20 lbs. lighter than Hunter at the same height. Regardless, he packs impressive power in a slighter frame. Turner flies off the line with a freakish first step and has imposing speed-to-power ability. Turner can do anything Flores may ask of him. He displays a prolific ability to seal the edge and clog run lanes. He also has the talent to drop back in coverage and sit and fill zones or run with tight ends. And he has incredible pass-rushing prowess that would likely alone garner first-round consideration.

While he was less heralded of a prospect coming out of high school, Jared Verse burst onto the scene at Albany before transferring to Florida. Eventually, he became a household name on an undefeated FSU team known for stout defense.

Verse is another athletic edge with incredible speed-to-power conversion, and his pass-rushing ability was undeniable in college. However, Verse was less dominant in the run game, showing up too far downfield to finish plays or missing tackles in the backfield. Still, Verse profiles as an impressive physical specimen with tremendous talent

At the neighboring defensive tackle position, players like Illinois’ stalwart and general consensus DT1 Jer’Zhan Newton, the Texas duo of T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II, and LSU’s Mekhi Wingo are fascinating prospective selections.

It would be shocking if many of these players were off the board before Minnesota’s first selection. Wingo or Sweat will likely be available in the second round. If the Vikings pass on using either of their first two selections on these players, Michael Hall, Maason Smith, or Khristian Boyd would be fascinating late-round picks.

Hall struggled with injuries, but he has talent that warrants a look. Boyd has less of the pedigree, but he has flashed in the Senior Bowl. Either of these players would be immediate rotational pieces with the chance to replace Dean Lowry or split snaps with Jaquelin Roy at the 4i-alignment.

Any of these selections are supported by position of need, surplus value, and return on investment.

Ultimately, the Vikings have prime positioning to rebuild their defensive line through the draft, with the best prospects at positions of need being available at their selection.

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