Chip Scoggins
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Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith stood off to the side of the field, away from the rest of the defensive line and linebackers at the beginning of the first training camp practice. They were working on their pass-rushing moves together.

Those two have been inseparable on the field since spring workouts. See one, see the other. Two new besties who hold the key to the Vikings' quest to resurrect its defense from a state of disrepair.

Want a prediction on how the defense will perform under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and his 3-4 scheme? Tell me how many games Hunter and Smith will play.

The more games they are available, the better the entire defense will look. It's a sliding scale.

Their value as bookend pass rushers cannot be overstated because individually, each guy can ruin an opposing offense's game plan and when you pair them together, they give the Vikings one of the fiercest tandems in the NFL — when they are healthy.

That is the crux of the conversation. Not talent or anything other than whether they can avoid the injury bug that has disrupted their careers in recent seasons.

"We're going to be us," Hunter said. "We're not going to try to be anybody else. We like how people are sleeping on us."

Nobody will sleep on D&Z if they are afforded a little luck and avoid serious injuries.

Hunter has established himself as one of the league's premier pass rushers and sack artists. He became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks (since 1982 when sacks became an official statistic). His sack numbers would be even more impressive if injuries hadn't limited him to only seven games the past two seasons. It's not a coincidence that the Vikings defense turned into roadkill in his absence.

Smith posted 26 sacks combined in the 2019-20 seasons for the Packers, then basically missed all last season because of a back injury. The Vikings gave him a contract this winter that can be worth up to $47 million.

Both players are healthy again and the benefit of playing together and forcing opponents to account for both is immeasurable for the entire defense.

"With those two guys on the edge," defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said, "you can't ignore both of them. That frees up a lot of us on the inside."

A suffocating pass rush is everything in modern football. It can mitigate weaknesses elsewhere in the defense while disrupting the offense's timing and precision.

All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks referred to Hunter and Smith as a "safety blanket for us."

Not only is Hunter healthy and motivated to re-establish himself as a dominating force, but he also has a new position in the 3-4 scheme. The roster now lists him as an outside linebacker, no longer defensive end.

He doesn't see much distinction.

"As long as I'm in the same vicinity — edge — I'm cool with that," he said. "I'm an edge."

The plan is to use his and Smith's talent and athleticism in creative ways. They won't just stay in one set position. They will play outside, inside and switch sides of the line. In Wednesday's practice, Hunter alternated between standing up at the line and putting his hand on the ground before the snap.

He reminded that he began his career as a standup pass rusher.

"That's how I got my first sack," he said. "Kansas City Chiefs. I remember."

The scheme is new and his role will evolve and allow him to show more versatility. No problem, he says.

"I'm on Year 8," he said. "I've pretty much done everything. It's just a matter of getting things sharpened."

His new sidekick is always there, standing beside him, to help that process. Smith and Hunter seem to enjoy teaching each other new pass-rushing moves.

Their presence as a tag-team duo makes the Vikings defense exponentially better than what we witnessed without Hunter. That's stating the obvious. Take away that "safety blanket" and everything looks different.