Vikings' big expectations for Danielle Hunter, Za'Darius Smith rooted in plan to keep them healthy

EAGAN, Minn. -- Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith found themselves in a rare spot last week: On the field, in full pads, lining up together against an opponent in a physical and challenging series of joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers. They were all over the field, disrupting the 49ers' offense in all the ways the Minnesota Vikings envisioned when they paired them as bookend outside linebackers in their new 3-4 scheme.

Their heavy dose of playing time in two practices with the 49ers was part of an atypical summer workload, one the Vikings' medical staff carefully designed and choreographed to give them enough time to learn the defense while minimizing their chance of suffering the kind of injuries that have slowed both of their careers.

They almost certainly won't play in any preseason games, and their practice reps have been limited in a camp that has skewed light for all players, making last week's work against the 49ers arguably their most important of the summer.

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who began his NFL career 32 years ago when heavy hitting and conditioning were the norm in camp, said the Vikings' teamwide approach this summer has been "as modern as you can find." He said there has been enough time to get Hunter and Smith comfortable in the scheme and insisted the team is "giving ourselves the best probability" of having both players healthy throughout the regular season.

You won't find any argument from the players. Hunter missed all of the 2020 season because of a neck injury, and he then played only seven games, and a total of 367 snaps, last season because of torn pectoral muscle. Smith, meanwhile, played only 17 regular-season snaps last season because of a back injury that required surgery.

Shortly after the Vikings hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell, they overhauled the team's medical staff and added former Los Angeles Rams athletic trainer Tyler Williams as executive director of player health and performance. O'Connell soon signaled a new approach to practices, limiting significant portions of OTAs and minicamp to a jog-through pace. He refers often to sports science in discussing practice plans and schedules, mixing targeted opportunities for full-pads contact with longer periods of less intense practices.

On Monday, for example, Hunter and Smith trotted to the sideline after warm-ups to go through a personalized set of footwork drills for 10 minutes while the rest of their teammates hit a blocking sled. The same routine was followed by other defensive veterans, including cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety Harrison Smith and inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks.

"You can do that when you get those older guys, getting into their seventh and eighth years," outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said. "They have to get enough work to get the stress on their lungs, but there's respect that they should get and that they earned, as well."

Injuries during training camp -- especially the soft-tissue variety -- were so minimal, the team made only one roster move between the start of camp and the mandatory cutdown to 85 on Aug. 16.

"[O'Connell] definitely knows when to turn it on," Hunter said. "He gives us maybe a couple days of going as hard as we can, and he takes care of us. But at the same time, we still need to put in a little bit of work. They have a good balance of when to turn it on and when to turn it off."

The plan for individual days can vary, but generally speaking, Hunter and Smith alternate between specialized work on the side and practice reps. The goal, of course, is to have Hunter and Smith fully available for the team's Week 1 opener against the visiting Green Bay Packers, a game that could have an outsize impact on the NFC North race.

Close observers of training camp practices have seen the foundation of what the Vikings have planned for the pair, who are coached by the same assistant -- Mike Smith -- who guided Za'Darius Smith to two Pro Bowls with the Packers.

In two seasons with Mike Smith, Za'Darius Smith lined up as an inside rusher on 385 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information positional data. Nearly half of his 26 sacks over that period (12.5) came on those inside rushes, making it easy to understand why he was doing the same thing against the 49ers.

"I am going to put my best on your worst," Mike Smith said. "That's what I ask outside linebackers to adapt to. They realize these guards aren't as athletic as the tackles they were going up against. And guess what? You're closer to the quarterback that way. 'Z' bought into that in Green Bay, and when you have a guy like that, that helps the entire [positional group] buy in. And it makes me a better coach too."

Hunter said he expects to move up and down the line, as well, and that he has picked the minds of both Mike and Za'Darius Smith for pointers. And if you were worried that a highly effective 4-3 pass-rusher would be miscast in a 3-4 scheme, Mike Smith offered a few reminders.

First, most NFL teams are in their base defense on less than 40% of snaps. When a 3-4 moves to nickel or dime sets, the defensive line morphs into something that's closer to a 4-3.

"Everybody's a 4-3 when you get into your nickel stuff," Smith said.

Second, the two-point stances of linebackers in a 3-4 make it easier to move them around the formation, as Za'Darius Smith has regularly done. And the Vikings are the first to point out how wasteful it would be to use Hunter or Smith in more than a minimal number of pass drops. Mike Smith predicted Hunter will drop "a little bit more" than he did in typical zone blitz 4-3 schemes.

"It's not like he's going to be one of our main droppers," Smith said.

It all has the Vikings thinking as big as it gets about their pass rush this season. Asked recently to assess the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker, Hunter said: "I feel like it's about the same thing. Being able to drop a little bit, rush the passer, stop the run, kind of like Lawrence Taylor-type stuff."

Taylor, of course, was arguably the best defensive player in NFL history.

Not to be undone, Za'Darius Smith commissioned T-shirts with "Meet me at the quarterback" printed on them, referencing the mantra of the Vikings' Purple People Eaters history. All of it counts on Smith and Hunter making it to, and through, the season. So far, so good.