The Minnesota Vikings have decided who will be starting opposite Danielle Hunter, and it’s a familiar face.
A seventh-round pick from 2016, Stephen Weatherly didn’t start during his first two years in the NFL. It wasn’t until Everson Griffen suffered an injury that he got his opportunity. Weatherly started six games, tallying three sacks during that time. He finished with six sacks in his four years with the Minnesota Vikings. Weatherly signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Carolina Panthers in 2020, but he failed to register a sack before being released this offseason.
Although Weatherly isn’t the flashiest player, he’s still not a bad option. He has a large frame, long arms, a high motor, and was previously known as one of the most intelligent guys in the locker room. Heck, he probably understands the defense better than any player outside of Hunter and Griffen.
Weatherly is better known for stopping the run than he is for his pass-rushing abilities, which is partially why Zimmer chose him to be the starter. Last season, the Vikings were the league’s 27th-ranked run defense and infamously let Alvin Kamara rush for six touchdowns on Christmas Day.
Fans may be underwhelmed by the decision, but this wasn’t too surprising considering Weatherly has experience playing in Zimmer’s notoriously complex defense and was the first veteran DE to be brought in by the Vikings. This gave him a leg up on both the younger players and Griffen, who just signed.
One of the most captivating storylines during training camp and the preseason was at defensive end. The Vikings had plenty of intriguing options to choose from like D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Janarius Robinson, and Kenny Willekes. The hype surrounding these players was strong but, in the end, the Vikings took the safest choice. That should speak volumes about how the coaching staff views Weatherly despite not having an overly impressive resumé.
If this decision proves one thing, it’s that the young Vikings DEs aren’t ready to be starters. Jones struggled with remembering plays in the preseason, Robinson was considered Andre Patterson’s latest project coming out of the draft, and Willekes spent last year rehabbing from injury. This can also be a good situation for some of the younger players, as this allows them to learn the ropes without the pressure of having any chance of being thrust into a starting role. This rings more true with Griffen on the team.
Even if one of these players exceeded expectations all offseason, like Wonnum for example, Zimmer would still likely be starting Weatherly at the beginning of the regular season. We’ve seen over the years that Zim prefers starting veterans over young talent because they tend to be lower-maintenance. He doesn’t have to worry about teaching rookies fundamentals midway through a season when the stakes are at their highest.
This could be a defining year for Mike Zimmer and his future with the Vikings. Ever since the 2017 season, when his defense was performing at its peak and the Vikings reached the NFC Championship game, they have slowly regressed, partly due to age, players leaving in free agency, and coaches working around Zimmer’s famous double-A gap blitz packages. He can’t afford to do what he did last year and be overconfident in young players quickly succeeding. It is simply an unnecessary risk unless a player can prove otherwise in practice that they deserve to be starting.
If Zimmer can survive the year, it could be beneficial to one of these young defensive ends vying for playtime. While Weatherly is a known quantity, he’s on a one-year deal and isn’t guaranteed to be back next season. All it takes is one year for a player with higher upside to put it all together, thus making the defense better. For now, though, fans will have to wait and see how the season unfolds.