Who’s the New Guy on the Vikings?

Nate Orchard
Nate Orchard

In the wake of Danielle Hunter’s season-ending injury – he tore his pectoral muscle in Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys – the Minnesota Vikings signed a depth player to possibly grab some pass-rushing snaps.

His name is Nate Orchard, a 2nd-Round pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Aug 30, 2018; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Nate Orchard (44). Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Orchard is a 28-year-old journeyman EDGE linebacker, spending time in multiple spots amid the last seven seasons. These are the teams that Orchard’s played for in some capacity:

  • Cleveland Browns
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • Miami Dolphins
  • Washington Football Team
  • Houston Texans
  • Tennessee Titans
  • Minnesota Vikings

The Viking hopped on that list after a different free-agent signee, Jonah Williams, failed a physical and wound up not playing for the team in 2021. He was going to inhabit Orchard’s new role after a release by the Los Angeles Rams but no such luck.

Orchard joins a group of EDGE rushers for the Vikings that includes Everson Griffen, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, and Kenny Willekes. The group is suddenly deprived of stardom without Hunter’s mighty reputation no longer attached. Wonnum is slated to start in Week 9 – he actually started to begin the season before Griffen seized his RDE job – and it is unclear how much tread Jones and Willekes will get in Mike Zimmer’s defense. This week, Zimmer called Jones a “violent and aggressive” pass rusher, precisely what is needed in Hunter’s absence.

In six seasons, Orchard has played in 46 games (13 starts) and tabulated six sacks, 85 total tackles, two forced fumbles, and 16 quarterback hits. His best season was 2015, the rookie campaign for the Utah alumnus. He played 48% of all defensive snaps that season, never playing more than that for a team again inside a single season. Recently with Washington, Orchard was afforded more special teams work than on the defensive side of the ball.

Named Napa’a Lilo Fakahafua at birth, here’s the new Viking’s Pro Football Focus resume:

  • 2020: 67.7
  • 2019: 67.0
  • 2018: 54.3
  • 2017: 66.3
  • 2016: 40.0
  • 2015: 64.8

He’s likely not a savior for Minnesota’s pretty-good defense – few are other than Hunter – so expect him to play a role as Jordan Brailford did in 2020. If he’s activated to the gameday roster, Orchard could see a few snaps here and there. Otherwise, the Vikings have more invested in Wonnum, Jones, and Willekes.

Through eight weeks, the Vikings defense ranks fourth-best in the NFL for defensive DVOA, but it has a nasty habit of collapsing late in games — see: Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, and Dallas Cowboys contests. They’re executing plenty of bend-don’t-break in the middle of football games — which is great — but crunchtime has been disappointing for Zimmer’s defense. And now with Hunter lost, the prognosis is grimmer. Without Hunter last year, the Vikings pass rush was awful. Perhaps Orchard will see some action if Wonnum, Jones, and Willekes underwhelm or get injured.

Orchard is of Tongan descent.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).