D.J. Wonnum Adjusts to New Defense as OLB

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) celebrates a sack of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View 

Here’s a Vikings quiz question: who led the team in sacks last season? 

No, it wasn’t Danielle Hunter who had six sacks in the first six games before being lost for the season with a torn pec in the seventh game. Not Everson Griffen, who had five sacks in the first 10 games before leaving the team due to mental health reasons. 

The correct answer is D.J. Wonnum, the former fourth-round pick in 2020. Wonnum registered eight sacks last season, with seven coming in the final seven games, as he became a full-time starter with more play time and thus more opportunities to rush the passer.  

With the Vikings offseason program wrapping up this week and training camp around the corner in late July, Wonnum has returned to a role as a likely non-starter who will be heavily counted on in the outside linebacker/edge rusher rotation along with starters Hunter and Za’Darius Smith. And with both of those players coming off major injuries that cost them most or all of the 2021 season, Wonnum surely will get plenty of play time this season in the rotation as he moves from a 4-3 defensive end under Mike Zimmer to a 3-4 base and occasional 4-3 player under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

Sep 14, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Wonnum says his transition to the new defense is going well so far, and he’s confident the opportunities will be there this season. “It’s coming along good,” he said. “Being able to use our athleticism and versatility a little more upfront in the defense. Playing outside linebacker, getting us on the edge and setting the edge…so far, so good.”

”Just having those guys (Danielle and Za’Darius), they bring a different element to our pass rush so it’s another year for me to learn, get better and work on my craft because when it’s time, I’ll be ready for it and that three-man front is definitely a big possibility for us to get after the quarterback.”  

At South Carolina, Wonnum played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. “So I have some experience in the 3-4 but I have to get back to being comfortable playing in a two-point stance (standing up) but so far the transition has been good,” he said. “The biggest adjustment is playing the run out of a two-point stance and obviously pass rush out of a two point and dropping into coverages but that’s kind of natural for me so I’ve been pretty good at that.” 

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As for the overall team progression this offseason, Wonnum is excited about where things stand. “Things are on track, us being around each other a lot more, connecting, that family partnership off the field has been a big thing for us, “ he said. “I feel like we have a great team. We’re going to continue to mesh and get better.” 

For the Vikings to become a playoff-caliber defense, the pass rush will have to be effective to help a secondary expected to have several young starters. The health and production of Hunter and Smith are of paramount importance for the Vikings D to have success. But don’t forget about Wonnum, who I think is a key player and must rotate effectively into the lineup as he did at the end of last season because a good 3-4 defense needs more than two excellent edge rushers.

Minicamp Observations:

1.If Wednesday’s field goal kicking was any indication, undrafted rookie Gabe Brkic will have to be a lot better in training camp to have a shot at unseating incumbent Greg Joseph. He was better in the closing stages of this minicamp practice (with Brkic missing several field goal attempts, including one inside of 40 yards). 

2. Another practice, another amazing one-handed sideline catch by Adam Thielen, and several tough catches in traffic by Justin Jefferson. It’s no secret, but it’s certainly fun to watch this terrific pair of top-flight receivers. 

Around the NFL Observations:

1.As expected, the Rams satisfied Aaron Donald’s contract demands by adding $40 million to the last three years of his contract, making him the highest-paid non-quarterback at over $31 million per year. As a GM, I never was willing to add money to a player’s contract with three years remaining, but the Rams decided that the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time Defensive Player of the Year was in a special category, and in this unique case, I’d say it was the right move.   

2. Aaron Rodgers blessed the Packers with his presence at this week’s minicamp after skipping earlier OTAs. He claimed it was good to work with his new receivers, including vet Sammy Watkins, second-round pick Christian Watson and fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs. But Rodgers obviously believes one week is enough until training camp as come next week and non-mandatory OTAs, he says he’ll be back in California. For $50 million per year, I’d expect more than one week’s work in the offseason program from my QB if I’m the Green Bay GM or Head Coach. Just saying.

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