It was Day 3 of the 2016 NFL draft, also known as Rick Spielman’s busiest day of the weekend. “Trader Rick,” as many have dubbed him, thanks to his near addiction for moving his picks back and forth vigorously in nearly every draft class, was on his second to last pick of the year.
My eyes and shoulders perked up simultaneously as the podium announcer declared Stephen Weatherly a Minnesota Viking. Despite being a seventh-round pick, Weatherly had my attention from the get-go as a long and lanky player Mike Zimmer could mold into a serious contributor off the edge. Besides just having Weatherly on top of my late round board of under-the-radar prospects — in comparison to the rest of the league — Spielman and Zimmer had already produced a solid success rate with their Day 3 selections.
Just the year prior, the GM-coach duo nailed the pick of Stefon Diggs, a small wide receiver with injury concerns, who has developed into one of the league’s best receivers. Three picks later, they scooped up a linebacker from Newberry by the name of Edmond Robinson. He now has a chance to be the team’s starting outside linebacker.
Given Spielman’s track record, it would’ve been foolish to turn my cheek on any late round selections, and Weatherly would be no different. I immediately began refining the little research I had done on the stand-up linebacker from Vanderbilt during the pre-draft process and became enamored with a guy who lacked any major production in the SEC. However, he possessed all the natural traits and raw talent — exactly the things you want to target with your late-round picks.
Weatherly always flew under the radar during the pre-draft process, playing second fiddle to guys with more production. However, his measurements and combine numbers should’ve woken up more people. At nearly 6-5, 265 pounds, Weatherly has 35-inch arms and monster 10¼-inch hands, looking every bit the part of an NFL defensive lineman when seeing him up close.
When put in sync with Zimmer’s reputation of quickly being able to mold no-name pass rushers (see Danielle Hunter), it was clear Weatherly had a shot to be a legitimate contributor in the defense two or three years down the road.
Because he played with multiple defensive coordinators, it was unclear where Zimmer was planning on playing him given Weatherly spent the majority of his time standing up at the linebacker position in Vanderbilt’s 3-4 defense. Regardless, it was obvious Weatherly was a guy who could get after the passer no matter where he was lined up, making splash plays in college as a “Joker” type box defender.
After grinding the tape on the seventh-round pick, the upside was noticeable as he was easily the team’s best defensive lineman with 11.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss in his career despite being the focal point of opposing offenses with such little talent around him. Weatherly was quick and twitchy, too, getting into the backfield and chasing down plays from the backside, including running backs and wide receivers down field. This was evident by his 4.61 40 time and 1.59 10-yard split, both upper echelon numbers for a defensive end.
Weatherly was every bit as impressive and intriguing of a prospect off the field, too. A highly educated and decorated student ,Weatherly was highly active in extracurriculars like Math, Chess and Robotics club outside of attaining his degree in sociology. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Weatherly goes deep down the music rabbit hole, playing nearly 10 instruments, including the flute, trumpet, trombone, saxophone and piano (just in case the band didn’t show up for the halftime show).
As much upside as Weatherly possessed coming out, it’s rare for seventh-round picks to crack the roster, let alone the rotation. In his rookie season Weatherly was no different. While defensive line coach Andre Patterson had his hands full with young, but soon to be starters like Hunter and Shamar Stephen, Weatherly was put on the back burner in 2016. He did, however, get a crack at special teams late in the season.
Now, after just one full offseason, Weatherly is doing all the right things and making a strong case for the coaching staff to plug him in as the team’s number four defensive end behind Griffin, Hunter, and Brian Robison — a job that right now is his for the taking. Weatherly told Zone Coverage just how much more comfortable and confident he is in his sophomore year.
“Coming in as a rookie you really don’t know what to expect,” Weatherly said. “Definitely knowing how to practice and how to prepare as a professional and what the coaches expect helps out a lot.”
He also noted that finding a veteran in the locker room to lean on and ask questions like Robison was vital for his development. “He’s a thoroughbred technician going into his 11th year, and he’s got the secret sauce, and it’s great having a guy like that that can share with you his wisdom for the game,” said Weatherly.
Learning how to be a technician like Robison is something Weatherly will continue to strive for. He noted, however, that there is another trait he hopes to be known for in his career.
“You can’t teach speed, and I think I have that,” said Weatherly, “so I try to utilize that in every part of my game. Everything I do I want to be explosive and fast at it.”
Weatherly will try to harness that speed in 2017 when he gets a chance on the field, but was stern when describing that speed is not the only key to playing in a Zimmer-led defense.
“His defenses don’t require one ultimate playmaker at any one position,” he said. “Instead, if all 11 guys do their job, we will all be successful and eventually everyone gets a piece of the pie when it comes to putting up the stats.”
Despite fierce pass rushers like Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr and Hunter, you can never have enough guys that can get after the quarterback in a pass-happy league. If the name of the game is to overwhelm opposing teams with young, athletic and talented pass rushers, then the Vikings seem to be in the driver’s seat of the entire NFL.
And in a league that is always one injury away from the next man up, Weatherly could be in line for some serious playing time at any moment, as he seems to be the primary back up to the big three.
Whether he gets into the rotation this year or down the line when guys like Robison leave, Weatherly looks like a lock to be another late-round pick that will outproduce and outplay his label as a seventh-round selection.
Put another notch on the belt of Spielman and his staff for finding diamonds in the rough.