Much of the talk about the Vikings heading into the NFL Draft and free agency has focused on strengthening both sides of the trenches. The offensive line has been bad for the last couple of years, but the defensive line in 2020 was the worst ever under head coach Mike Zimmer. Sure, they were missing Danielle Hunter and lost Everson Griffen in free agency, but there was no excuse for a Zimmer defense to be so poor at putting pressure on the quarterback.
Griffen dashed any hopes of a Minnesota return when his tweets berating quarterback Kirk Cousins surfaced. Instead the Vikings opted for a different reunion and brought back another former defensive end, Stephen Weatherly. He announced on Instagram that he’s back in purple and gold, signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal after one season with the Carolina Panthers.
Earlier in the week, Matt Johnson labeled Weatherly as a “sneaky free agent” the Vikings could sign. He described Weatherly as a cerebral member of the defensive line who would serve as a great rotational piece. It isn’t the first time Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have decided to bring a former member of the defensive line back. Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen both returned after short stints with the Seattle Seahawks.
Weatherly’s 2020 season was marred by injury. The Panthers decided to release him halfway through his two-year, $12.5 million deal to clear cap space to make a run for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Weatherly isn’t the big name that fans hoped to pair alongside Hunter for next season. Still, he adds value as a veteran rotational player because of his familiarity with the defense. He has proven that he can also be a starter when needed, playing well during Griffen’s absence in the 2018 season.
Weatherly will likely be a rotational player this season. His length and versatility on the edge can serve the Vikings well on passing downs and help keep the rest of the D-line fresh.
He also allows the Vikings, who are still $5 million over the cap, to clear some other defensive linemen off the books to clear cap space. Both Stephen and Jaylen Holmes could end up as potential cap casualties.
Weatherly’s return to the Vikings shouldn’t change their draft strategy at all. He could serve as a mentor to D.J. Wonnum and whatever rookie the Vikings choose to supplement their current group of defensive ends. Next year the defensive line looks like it will feature Hunter, Weatherly, Wonnum, and Ifeadi Odenigbo. That’s a major upgrade in the quality of the starters and significant improvement on the depth chart.