The Vikings’ Pass Rushing Department: Untangling the Danielle, D.J., & Davenport Dynamic

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Danielle Hunter is the purveyor of pass rush in The North Star State. The Vikings’ pass rushing department isn’t going anywhere fast unless he’s excellent.

Alongside Hunter is D.J. Wonnum, who has taken on the task of being Minnesota’s EDGE2. The opening is present simply because Marcus Davenport has been hurt for most of the season. Few can doubt Davenport’s talent, and yet the disappointing reality is that he has struggled to stay healthy throughout the duration of his career. Currently, the former Saint has only been on the field for 118 snaps (compared to 588 for Hunter and 531 for Wonnum).

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) is pressured by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Marcus Davenport (0) and linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The wild thing, of course, is that none of these three are under contract beyond the current season. In fact, Hunter and Davenport are set to leave behind quite hefty cap charges — $14.9 million for the former (give or take a few bucks), $6.8 million for the latter — as a result of salary cap shenanigans from the GM. Seeing north of $20 million being gobbled up by a pair of pass rushers who aren’t on the roster is a scenario the Vikings would prefer to avoid, suggesting a new deal for at least one is on the horizon.

As most will know by now, Hunter is leading the NFL in both sacks and TFLs. Partially a byproduct of the contract year, perhaps, and yet still quite impressive. Meanwhile, Wonnum has a shot at hitting 10 sacks in 2023, an accomplishment few would have foreseen coming into the season. What’s in store for this crew?

The Vikings’ Pass Rushing Department

As soon as they say goodbye to Danielle Hunter, the Vikings will start looking for someone exactly like Danielle Hunter. Don’t miss that reality, folks.

Aug 3, 2023; Eagan, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) during training camp at TCO Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Very few are built like Mr. Hunter. The 6’5″, 263-pound pass rusher has unusually long arms, which is certainly an important attribute when one’s profession involves tossing quarterbacks into the turf. Just think about the moments when he’s trying to turn the corner but the offensive tackle has been doing a nice job of riding the pass rusher down the field. Hunter, quite often, is still capable of reaching those long arms out, swatting the ball out of the QB’s hands (example).

He’s 29 and going to demand a hefty amount of money to stick around town. Even still, Hunter is someone the Vikings should feel quite comfortable investing in. There is no defensive turnaround if Hunter isn’t playing at an elite level.

At this point, the main question simply rests in if Hunter can continue his top-level production throughout the remainder of the season (and beyond into the postseason). Doing so would ensure a very robust payday is on the horizon.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Washington Commanders
Nov 6, 2022; Landover, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) and Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) celebrate after a sack against the Washington Commanders during the third quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Wonnum has taken many by surprise.

For the most part, the 2020 4th-round selection has been a depth piece. He’s built perfectly to be an NFL pass rusher, standing at 6’5″ and weighing 258 pounds. So, basically an identical build to Hunter. The main difference simply rests in Hunter being more explosive.

Working under Brian Flores’ tutelage has been a positive experience for Mr. Wonnum, at least statistically. He put together 8 sacks and 7 TFLs in 2021, a season where he played in all 17 games while starting 14. In 2023, Wonnum has played in all 10 games while starting 9; he’s now up to 5 sacks and 5 TFLs. Don’t be surprised if he establishes new career highs in each stat category.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Nathan Peterman (14) passes the ball under pressure from Minnesota Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

And then finally we think of Marcus Davenport. Getting him back following the bye will mean Flores has the luxury of putting out a terrifying trio on obvious passing downs. Davenport’s ability to move to the interior of the defensive line makes the potential particularly intriguing.

The Week 4 and Week 5 games were enough to whet the fans’ appetite. A pair of sacks, a pair of TFLs, and a 4 QB hits arrived in those two games. Clearly, talent and ability aren’t the issue.

Banking on health seems like a bold move since the season has already featured so many injury issues and the fact that he hasn’t yet played a full season in the NFL. The upside, though, is obvious. Only 27, Davenport has both the youth and ability to be a top-tier pass rusher in the present moment and for the foreseeable future.

Minnesota, of course, is hoping for the best case scenario. Getting him back onto the field is only part of the battle; keeping him on the field will be the real goal. The 2023 season has featured no shortage of turmoil, but the return of Davenport has the potential to supercharge the defense.

Slowly, Flores has been pulling his defense into relevance. Minnesota sits at 6-4, in firm control of their own playoff destiny. Thriving in the postseason is unlikely to happen if the team’s pass rush is bland and ineffective, so getting all three onto the field at the same time and playing well is paramount.

Look for Hunter and Wonnum to put together strong efforts on Sunday Night Football. Taking down Sean Payton and Russell Wilson must involve creating plays behind the line of scrimmage, so the Vikings’ pass rushing department has a key role to play.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.