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Danielle Hunter's injury creates opportunity; Yannick Ngakoue working overtime to learn Vikings' system

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 23, 2019; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo (95) celebrates his sack in the third quarter against Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Ifeadi Odenigbo spent much of training camp thinking he was in line to replace Everson Griffen as the Vikings’ starting right defensive end. Then the Vikings pulled off a surprise trade at the end of August to acquire Yannick Ngakoue from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Odenigbo’s starting job suddenly was gone. The positive for the Vikings was that Odenigbo had shown he had the ability to thrive as a backup — he had seven sacks last season — and, in that role, could move inside on passing downs to provide pressure from a tackle position. Odenigbo’s likely disappointment at losing out on a starting job didn’t last long. Just over a week after the Ngakoue trade, the Vikings placed star left end Danielle Hunter on the injured reserve because of what was reported as a neck injury. He must miss at least three weeks.
The Vikings have a few options to replace Hunter, starting with the regular-season opener Sunday against Green Bay. The team’s updated depth chart has Jalyn Holmes as the starting left end with Eddie Yarbrough behind him and Odenigbo backing up Ngakoue at right end. Is that accurate? Perhaps. But, remember, the Vikings also said that Hunter was dealing with a “little tweak,” so taking their word for how guys are going to be used isn’t necessarily advised.
“I coach them all,” Vikings co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson said Thursday when asked about the preparation of the players behind Hunter. “You never know what’s going to happen … so that’s the reason why we coach them all. Regardless of whether it’s a d-lineman, a linebacker, a DB. That’s part of the NFL. You’re going to have guys that are going to miss games. So if you don’t coach them, that guy doesn’t get prepared to be ready to play and you can’t prepare them in one week. … They all get reps. We’re hard on them all the time for just that reason.”
Holmes, a fourth-round pick by the Vikings out of Ohio State in 2018, had been a defensive tackle in his first two seasons with Minnesota but lost about 23 pounds during the offseason after being told he would be moved to end. He played in 11 games over his first two seasons and had seven tackles and one sack. Holmes did play end for the Buckeyes, so the move puts him back in a familiar spot.
Yarbrough signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming in 2016 but was waived by Denver in September of that year. He landed with the Bills in 2017 and played in 31 games over two seasons, making 63 tackles with one sack and two pass breakups. Yarbrough was waived by the Bills a year ago and signed to their practice squad. The Vikings signed him off that unit last December.
Odenigbo, who was taken by the Vikings in the seventh round in 2017, had stops in Cleveland and Arizona before returning to Minnesota. He got into all 16 games last season and had 23 tackles, seven for a loss, 13 quarterback hits, forced a fumble and recovered two more, returning one for a touchdown.

None of the above three players are going to replace Hunter’s production — he has 14.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons — but at least one should get a chance to get regular snaps on Sunday and try to make life difficult for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“To me I don’t look at it as a challenge, you just go play,” Patterson said. “That’s part of football. Guys can’t play in games, we go play. That’s why you have other guys on your roster. You expect for them to step up and go play and get the job done. We’ve never panicked around here and we never will. It’s not a big deal on my part, it’s not with the players. We just go play and we expect the guy that’s going to go in there to play to give us his best effort and play to the best of his ability.”
The issue is whether that will be enough to contain Rodgers. The Packers have injury issues at right tackle, so the potential match-up with Hunter looked to be a huge advantage for the Vikings. Now, there appears to be no clear edge on that side. This isn’t good for the Vikings’ young cornerbacks, considering Rodgers figures to have more time to find open receivers.
Remember, Ngakoue also is only a week-plus into training camp and is new to the Vikings’ system so he should not be expected to be in mid-season form. Ngakoue had eight sacks in 15 games last season and reached the quarterback 37.5 times in 63 games and four seasons with Jacksonville.
“He’s been outstanding,” Patterson said of Ngakoue. “He’s been better than I’ve ever dreamed. He’s come in early, he’s stayed late. He’s got a great hunger for knowledge and wanting to be good. I’ve been very, very impressed with him. I’m excited that he’s here, even more after having these days to work with him, and he’s done an outstanding job.”
Patterson acknowledged there is good reason that Ngakoue has a desire to learn Minnesota’s system. “It’s a big difference in what we do and what they do in Jacksonville, and I think that’s the reason why he had so much of a sense of urgency to put in the time to try and learn (the defense here),” Patterson said. “Not just the terminology being different, but how we ask our guys to play is so much different, too. … In Jacksonville, he had his hand on the ground some, too, he wasn’t a stand up guy all the time, so that adjustment hasn’t been as difficult. It’s just him understanding how we align, how we play blocks and those kind of things.”
The Vikings have been careful not to rush Ngakoue along too quickly, given the fact he did not have a full camp, so it will be interesting to see how many snaps he plays on Sunday. As far as what Patterson has been doing in working with Ngakoue, the veteran coach said he won’t hesitate to make some changes in the veteran’s game.
“I’m changing him. That’s what I’m doing, that’s who I am,” Patterson said. “When I say that, I’m not taking away who he is, so don’t get that wrong. The things that are special to his game, we’re going to keep special to his game. But the things that I see that can add a different element to his game to make him so much more difficult to block, we’re going to work on those things. That’s one of the things that I’ve been very impressed with is that he’s eager to try to work those things and work really hard at it and not get frustrated if it doesn’t win right away. That’s one of the things that excites me about him so much.”