2 Recovering Smiths, Managing Hunter, and the 3rd Wave of Free Agency
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
First-round pick Lewis Cine and his fellow draftees hit the Vikings practice fields this week with the veterans for the first time, and as usual, it was the vets who made the biggest impression on observers such as myself.
Yes, Cine looked smooth and athletic at safety as per his advance notice. And it was surely even more exciting for the Vikings coaches to see second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. on the field, participating in drills and looking like he’s recovered from sports hernia surgery, so he should be ready for full participation in training camp that begins in late July.
It’s difficult to project too much from the 2022 rookie class until we see them in full pads in training camp and then in the three preseason games, when most rookies will get ample playing time as they stake their claims to roster spots and perhaps starting roles.
What caught my attention more than the rookies at Tuesday’s OTA session was seeing the two keys to the Minnesota defense (and perhaps to the Vikings’ playoff hopes along with Kirk Cousins’ performance)—edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith—on the field together in 7-on-7 drills. And seeing Irv Smith Jr. back at practice and thinking about his impact on the Vikings loaded offense at the skill positions.
Just the sheer athleticism of Danielle and Za’Darius is something special to see, even in half-speed drills at OTAs. Both players were smiling on the field and during their post-practice media sessions when they said they were excited to be on the same team together. For Hunter, the switch to a 3-4 base defense is more dramatic since he’s basically been in the 4-3 his entire career under Mike Zimmer. It’s expected the Vikings will mix in some 4-3 as a change-up, and Hunter said he has rushed in the past from a standing position (which he usually will as a 3-4 outside linebacker/edge rusher).
“Last year we played 3-4 a little bit…remember the Arizona game. That was pretty fun,” Hunter said of the game when he had three sacks of Kyler Murray in Week 2. “I feel a little bit more free, playing 3-4. I mean, we go back and forth.”
Hunter praised Za’Darius Smith as “cool, a good overall character” and had connected with him previously at the Pro Bowl when they played together.
Smith is undoubtedly accustomed to the 3-4 as he excelled in that defense at Green Bay (just ask Cousins, the victim of plenty of Smith sacks). On playing with Hunter, Smith said, “To be able to be here and have a chance to be on the opposite side of him is wonderful. I just can’t wait.”
Vikings coaches and fans also can’t wait to see them chasing quarterbacks together. But it will be a delicate balancing act to make sure they are healthy and ready to go come opening day against the Packers, a matchup against his former team that has Smith already fired up.
Smith played in only one game for the Packers in 2021 before a back injury knocked him out of the lineup, while Hunter is returning from his torn pec that cost him 10 games last season.
It will be up to the Vikings training staff and the quartet of Head Coach Kevin O’Connell, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, assistant head coach Mike Pettine and outside linebackers coach/pass rush specialist Mike Smith to manage the workload of Hunter and Za’Darius Smith in OTAs, mini-camp, training camp and in the three preseason games (and I would recommend they play only one series–if that—in perhaps two of these meaningless games).
The same type of load management will be needed for Irv Smith Jr. as he returns from the meniscus injury that landed him on injured reserve for the entire 2021 season. Irv is a very athletic tight end who has flashed Pro Bowl talent in his first two seasons. This is a huge year for him as he can hit free agency next spring and a big season sets him up for a nice payday.
The Vikings need Irv Smith healthy and productive to be an outlet for Cousins in the short and intermediate passing game, and he has the speed to get open deep against linebackers and safeties. Smith can help open things up for the Vikings’ excellent wide receiver trio of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn, along with a great running back in Dalvin Cook.
With the loss in free agency of Tyler Conklin, the Vikings don’t have a veteran receiving tight end who can make an impact like Smith, although last year’s fifth-rounder Zach Davidson looked good catching several passes on Tuesday in 7-on-7 and flashed some speed for a big guy (6’7”). The other tight ends—free agent signee Johnny Mundt, returnee Ben Ellefson and seventh-round pick Nick Muse—look more like blocking-type tight ends than receiving threats.
As the draft choices and undrafted rookies get their feet wet and become more comfortable in the offensive and defensive schemes, they’ll become more noticeable or play their way off the roster once training camp arrives. In Week 1 of full squad OTAs, the vets are the main story—and especially these three key vets, Hunter, and the two Smiths, who are returning from major injuries and are likely to play major roles if the Vikings are to become a playoff team and a threat to the Packers for the division title.
Around the NFL Observations & will the Vikings make another splash signing before training camp?
We’re now in the third wave of NFL free agency, which is the period between the draft and the start of training camps when teams reassess their rosters after the first two waves of free agency and the draft and consider signing available free agents at positions of need. Team capologists are crunching numbers to see how much salary cap room they have while factoring in the need to budget for a full 53 player roster along with injured reserve players and practice squad players who all count under the cap when the regular season arrives.
The Vikings currently have a reported $11-12 million in cap room for the Top 51 players, which is how a team’s cap room is measured until the final roster is set in early September. There are many top-flight, starting-caliber players still on the open market who have been waiting for the right team/right offer before signing or perhaps are rehabbing a major injury to prove worthy of being signed (such as with Odell Beckham and his ACL tear sustained in the Super Bowl).
This list of available players includes wide receivers Beckham and Julio Jones, defensive ends/edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Trey Flowers, defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Vikings-killer Akiem Hicks, future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, cornerback James Bradberry, center J.C. Tretter and ex-Vikings Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr. Then add quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo, who the Browns and 49ers are looking to trade.
That’s a pretty strong list of players who probably can help a team to more victories. Some free agents may wait until early-to-mid training camp to see if an injury opens up a better opportunity financially or with a playoff-caliber team. We’ll see if the Vikings will stand pat, take a run at an available, high-profile free agent or wait and see if an injury forces their hand.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl.