Minnesota Vikings roster breadcrumbs hit the carpet on Thursday morning when defensive end Stephen Weatherly announced via Instagram that he was returning to the team.
Weatherly will fortify a Vikings defensive line that was ostensibly lousy in 2020 as injuries to Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce devastated the bunch. Head coach Mike Zimmer normally fosters a robust defensive line that terrorizes quarterbacks, but nothing of the sort occurred during the pandemic season. Quarterbacks were afforded safekeeping in the pocket. When a teensy pass rush was generated – it was cause for genuine excitement. In years past, a pass rush was standard operating procedure for the Zimmer-Vikings. A signature, even.
The return of the 26-year-old Weatherly offers roster depth and a “getting the band back together” sentiment. He will join other non-Danielle Hunter pass rushers to contend for the RDE position on the depth chart. Contending names include Ifeadi Odenigbo, D.J. Wonnum, Jalyn Holmes, Kenny Willekes, and the aforementioned Weatherly.
What’s more, the Weatherly acquisition sheds a bit more light on the Vikings plans in the NFL draft. His welcome-back to the team certainly does not mean a ferocious EDGE rusher is disqualified from draft plans, but the urgency is arguably lessened now. Onlookers received confirmation that Minnesota will use free agency first to address the defensive line maladies.
Less Emphasis on EDGE in Round 1
Foremost, Weatherly should not be perceived as the solution to the offseason EDGE quandary. He is an astute player that adds depth – one that the Vikings know intimately. Weatherly did not receive ample playing time after leaving Minnesota in 2020. He played more snaps for the Vikings in 2018 (523 snaps) and 2019 (420 snaps) than he did the Panthers in 2020 (358 snaps).
But now – the EDGE section of the roster is a bit crowded. For the sheer rake of putting bodies on the DE slot of the depth chart, Minnesota [almost] doesn’t need anymore. While the scope of the draft’s 1st Round this April is to hit the biggest homerun for the future, the Vikings have plenty of defensive ends that can rotate in the RDE position. Selecting a Kwity Paye from Michigan or Gregory Rousseau from Miami (FL) would be about long-term planning (and rightfully so). Either of those men is significantly more exciting than Odenigbo, Wonnum, Holmes, Willekes, or Weatherly.
Had general manager Rick Spielman done nothing at EDGE during free agency, the likelihood of the team choosing a defensive in Round 1 of the draft would be greater. By a smidgen, the Weatherly addition reduces the necessity for an EDGE rusher at the 14th overall pick.
Logjam at DE
Weatherly is a player that deserves at least one-third of all defensive snaps. Why? Because he was allotted that and more inside of Zimmer’s robust defenses of 2018 and 2019. He is reaching the physical prime of his career at age 26, so it would be odd to slash his playing time now. In fact, it could spike.
Yet, the other mouths need feeding — Odenigbo, Wonnum, Holmes, and Willekes. There are only so many defensive snaps in a game to allocate for this group of names.
Adding a young EDGE rusher from the 2021 NFL Draft virtually eliminates about 2-3 of these men from on-the-field action. And perhaps that is totally fine for Zimmer and Spielman. We just don’t know at the moment.
Stockpiling defensive ends generally indicates that spot is not a hot need. Up until Thursday morning, many folks assumed EDGE was a positional interest for the Vikings during the draft. But maybe not — now that Weatherly returns to town for at least one-third of all snaps.
Focus Turns to OL, DT, or Best Player Available
If one operates under the pretense that Weatherly and his pals fill the void at RDE, then sights can be set on other roster holes. Minnesota has habitual problems protecting its quarterbacks and has even used high-round draft capital on offensive linemen in three consecutive drafts.
The 2021 NFL Draft may extend that streak to four years running. Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC is frequently mock-drafted to the Vikings. Opting in for the Weatherly redux nudges the franchise closer to choosing a non-DE prospect. That might be another offensive lineman.
Defensive tackle is a need, too — specifically the 3-technique position. If Minnesota makes no free-agent moves at 3DT, perhaps the Christian Barmore from Alabama draft chatter is palpable.
Or – can the Vikings address all roster holes in free agency on a condensed COVID budget? If Spielman signs a 3DT, a guard or two, a veteran cornerback, and Weatherly, the team can truly select the best player available – no matter the position on the field.