Rookie D.J. Wonnum Could See Major Role With Yannick Ngakoue Gone

Will Ragatz

The Vikings traded Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens on Thursday morning, salvaging a third-round pick in what amounts to a failed investment. They acquired Ngakoue from the Jaguars in late August with the idea that he would help lead them to contention in 2020, but then pulled the plug on the experiment after a 1-5 start, knowing that the star pass-rusher would cost a great deal to retain next season and beyond.

From a big-picture perspective, the move signals the beginning of a potential rebuilding phase in Minnesota, even if GM Rick Spielman won't admit it.

But when looking at the short-term outlook, it means a struggling Vikings pass rush has gotten even worse. With Ngakoue in Baltimore and Danielle Hunter out for the season, Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson will be forced to turn to an uninspiring group of defensive ends: Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jalyn Holmes, D.J. Wonnum, and Jordan Brailford.

Odenigbo is the clear best player among that group. He actually leads the Vikings with 21 pressures this season, five more than Ngakoue's 16. Odenigbo only has 2.5 sacks to show for it compared to Ngakoue's five, but that can be a fairly random stat in small sample sizes. Also notable is that Odenigbo – who is a restricted free agent after this season – is the Vikings' best run defender at DE and is one of the best in the NFL in that department, according to ESPN analytics.

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Holmes has had a couple good games this season but is a fourth-year player who has basically been a replacement-level defensive lineman during his NFL career.

Perhaps the most exciting player in the Vikings' new quartet of DEs is rookie D.J. Wonnum, who they selected in the fourth round out of South Carolina this year. He was inactive in the season opener but has played at least 18 snaps in each of the past five games, including a career-high 33 last week against the Falcons.

Through five games, Wonnum has four pressures, three hurries, and a sack. He has looked like a raw 22-year-old most of the time, but has showed some very intriguing flashes. Wonnum turned his career-high in playing time last weekend into his best performance, with two run stops, a QB hurry, and a 73.2 grade from PFF against Atlanta.

Wonnum's calling cards coming out of South Carolina were his athleticism, length, and the upside that those traits give him. He had just 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss during his college career, but Patterson was enamored with his tape. The Vikings' veteran defensive line coach and co-DC pounded the table for Wonnum during the draft process, and Spielman granted those wishes by selecting him 117th overall.

All of the traits are there for Wonnum: he's 6'5" with long arms and good speed, explosiveness, and agility.

The physical tools and lack of elite college production drew easy comparisons to Danielle Hunter, another hand-picked choice of Patterson who has developed into one of the most dominant edge rushers in football. Wonnum has a long ways to go – refining his technique, getting stronger, adding pass rushing moves to his arsenal, becoming a more complete defender – just to become a starting-caliber DE, much less a player like Hunter.

Over the next ten games, the Vikings will be able to get a long look at what Wonnum can do as he hopefully improves with more and more reps. I'd expect that Odenigbo and Holmes will be listed as the team's starting DEs, but Wonnum should see a ton of work in that rotation and could wind up starting over Holmes before too long.

Another player who could get some run is Brailford, who the Vikings poached from Washington's practice squad earlier this month. The Oklahoma State product was a seventh-round pick in 2019 and fits the Vikings' mold in terms of raw athleticism. He's a bit undersized, with a build similar to Ngakoue's, but has great burst. The Vikings will likely give Brailford some snaps down the stretch to see if he has a chance to develop into an interesting player.

With Ngakoue gone and Hunter out, Patterson and the Vikings can use these final ten games to evaluate their four defensive ends and see who fits into the puzzle in 2021 and beyond.

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