The move is not without risk. Smith is coming off a season where he played in Week 1 and the Green Bay Packers’ playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but none of the games in between. However, the payoff will be massive if Smith and Hunter stay healthy. It will also affect the rookies in the secondary.
The Vikings double-dipped with their first two picks in the draft when they selected safety Lewis Cine out of Georgia and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. out of Clemson. Both should see significant playing time in their debut campaigns. While having veterans like Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson patrolling the secondary will help in a major way for both rookies, the pressure off the edge from Minnesota’s two-headed monster could be just as significant.
Via Statmuse, last year’s Vikings were second in the NFL in sacks behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers. A quarterback constantly under pressure needs to make decisions quickly. Despite many of Minnesota’s defensive struggles in 2021, they racked up sacks and forced turnovers. The Vikings were fifth in the league in turnover differential. A big credit goes to the offense for not coughing it up, but the defense pounced on opportunities.
If Smith and Hunter can stay healthy in 2022, they will undoubtedly make life a living hell for one opposing quarterback after another. They’re both way too good not to produce. They’ve just struggled with availability.
Pressure applied by Smith and Hunter can lead to rushed and reckless decisions from quarterbacks, which can put Cine and Booth in advantageous situations. Of course, the Vikings’ coaching staff will work to set the rookies up to succeed, but the two veteran edge rushers can also play a role in that.
“That’s where scheme comes into play. We can move these guys. They’re movable pieces, both Danielle and Za’Darius. The one cool thing, when you really study them over their careers, is go look at how many times those guys have been walking around on a third down and hitting four or five different gaps in a game, rushing different matchups. Look at how many times they’ve been on the same side with another rusher. So we can dictate the terms of slides. That’s one thing as an offensive coach: I can look at protections and see how exactly to manipulate the turn of the center so we can get one-on-one matchups with whoever we want, whenever we want.”
Rookies like Cine and Booth have an opportunity to shine if the veterans on defense are demanding attention. For Minnesota, there’s an avalanche of talent on this defense. If Hunter and Smith stay healthy, it puts Cine and Booth in a position to carve out valuable roles early on without having to carry the defense. Even if they don’t, it won’t deter Cine and Booth from embracing their role. However, the scenario Cine and Booth have is one that many rookies would prefer as they transition into the NFL.
This year, Minnesota will rely heavily on Smith and Hunter to anchor the defensive front. The only reservations anyone should have is the health of both star players. It’s that simple. If they’re playing most of the snaps, the Vikings’ defense will be lethal. If they miss time here and there — or in large chunks — it could be fatal to the defense. Right alongside that is the impact Minnesota’s front has on the other two layers of the defense, the secondary, specifically.
Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. will get the help they need to learn the ropes from Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith. Some of those tips will come in film breakdown and some in situational spots on the field. The help they should receive from Smith and Hunter will simply be from the havoc the duo creates for the opposing offensive line and quarterback, setting the stage for the two rookies to jump into the fray and muck things up for the other side.