The Vikings Can't Afford to Ignore Defensive End

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu (USA TODAY Sports)

Every offseason, the offensive line will be the focus of the Minnesota Vikings’ roster improvement discussions. Rightfully so, as that unit has been a problem since Mike Zimmer’s arrival in 2014. But the Vikings had plenty of other problems this offseason. They’ve addressed many of them, including the secondary and defensive front, and even traded for a potentially viable guard. Zimmer has already expressed that he’s excited about the new defense. I’m here to tell you he shouldn’t be done yet.

The Vikings have an underrated problem on the edge of the defense. Danielle Hunter is a superstar, but his status is in flux. Even with a happy and healthy Hunter, Minnesota has a big problem on the opposite side. Stephen Weatherly re-joined the Vikings on a paltry $2.5 million contract, mostly unguaranteed. D.J. Wonnum played 471 snaps last year as the reserves dwindled. Right now, the other defensive end position figures to be a competition between those two.

That’s simply not good enough.

Weatherly is a better-known quantity. After a mostly rotational role during his rookie season in Minnesota, he played just 358 snaps for the Carolina Panthers in a disappointing year. He produced 12 pressures over 206 pass-rush snaps, as opposed to Wonnum’s 22 pressures on 273 pass-rush snaps. It was a down year for Weatherly, however, who produced a little better in his last couple of years in Minnesota.

In five years, Weatherly has never earned himself a starting job. He’s had his opportunities. In 2018, with Everson Griffen unavailable, Weatherly started for seven games. In 2020, the Vikings declined to make that a permanent change. The Panthers signed him to starting money, but he rotated with Marquis Haynes before being placed on IR midway through the season.

The more interesting name to evaluate is D.J. Wonnum. If Wonnum can step up and play at a starting-quality level, it’d naturally remove the need. If not, the Vikings are in a bad, bad way at the position. Unfortunately, Wonnum is a long way away from that sort of contribution.

The Vikings drafted Wonnum because of his length and his explosion. He’s not a bulky pass rusher but rather a speeding bullet with a reach advantage. When that’s your style, the swim move is a great option. Here’s six-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell breaking down why:

In short, his technique has three moves: a chop to get rid of the tackle’s arms, a grab on the shoulder, and the iconic swim over the top. Wonnum is employing a different technique, and it’s not right for him.

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That may have been a more natural thing to teach to a rookie in a truncated offseason program, but it’s perhaps time to challenge Wonnum to play a little more like Campbell. That lack of oomph shows up in some ugly ways on Wonnum’s tape.

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When you don’t have grade-A defensive linemen, you have to get tricky to manufacture pressure. Stunts are one option for this, and the Vikings tried plenty with Wonnum. This is where that general lack of agility came back to bite him.

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Wonnum actually had a pretty good game against Tampa. His game did develop somewhat over the course of the year. Here he finds some success as a stand-up rusher on the inside on third down. That’s a role we may see more of next year, much like we did for Weatherly, Ifeadi Odenigbo, and Brian Robison.

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He also started to develop a more diverse arsenal of pass-rush moves. Here he finds his way underneath a 6’6″ tackle to force Tom Brady to step up into the pocket.

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That said, he has a long way to go. He needs to overhaul his pass-rush technique, bulk up to bolster his run defense, and work to quicken his stunts and games. That’s a long list, even under a developmental guru like Andre Patterson. Unless there’s a sixth-year jump somewhere in Stephen Weatherly or D.J. Wonnum can improve mightily in multiple ways, the Vikings only have one starting-quality edge rusher on the team. And that player isn’t guaranteed to see the field in purple.

There are plenty of ways the Vikings could go to handle this. The free-agent market is still fairly saturated, with Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, and even Everson Griffen among the available names. The first two days of the draft are rife with superior edge talent. Luckily for the Vikings, there are options. It is perfectly justifiable to spend even more on fixing that defense than they already have. In fact, it would be inexcusable not to.

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