The Vikings Next Big Roster Battle Is Here

D.J. Wonnum / Stephen Weatherly

Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman completely reconditioned the team’s defense this offseason, notably adding names like Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, and Bashaud Breeland. In 2020, head coach Mike Zimmer’s squad embarked on an uncharacteristic nosedive that ended with the Vikings ranking fourth-worst in the NFL per points allowed. Zimmer is loudly a defense-first coach, so the departure from the norm was rather outlandish.

It won’t happen again, though – not if Spielman and Zimmer can help it. While the organization has noticeably pivoted to emphasis on offense with Kirk Cousins’ 2018 acquisition, the substantial investment in Dalvin Cook, and the 2nd-Round draft pick of Irv Smith Jr. in 2019, defense remains the spine of the organization. Most followers of the Vikings perceive the 2020 nausea as a one-year outlier attributable to injuries that beset Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Michael Pierce (COVID opt-out).

Of all areas on the defensive depth chart, most seem set for the who’s-who pecking order. The cornerbacks might fluctuate from CB2 and CB3, but Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Cameron Dantzler, and Mackensie Alexander will get ample snaps.

The next big mystery is the identity of the starting RDE.

Heading into training camp, the job was up for grabs between Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum, and rookie Patrick Jones. Here’s the full slate of DE power per the Vikings first unofficial depth chart:

Left Defensive End

LDE1: Danielle Hunter
LDE2: Jalyn Holmes
LDE3: Jordan Brailford
LDE4: Janarius Robinson

Right Defensive End

RDE1: Stephen Weatherly
RDE2: D.J. Wonnum
RDE3: Kenny Willekes
RDE4: Patrick Jones II

Headlines hit on Monday, hinting that job was probably down to Weatherly vs. Wonnum.

 

And if Patterson is naming it a two-horse race, then consider that gospel.

The rookie Jones might emerge throughout the season, but Minnesota historically makes rookies “earn it” during real-time regular-season play. Indeed, it took Danielle Hunter and Justin Jefferson time to work themselves into playing time. Jones likely won’t circumvent that philosophy.

Weatherly is the “safe” option. His one-year vacation down to the Carolina Panthers was underwhelming – he wanted to be the guy down there. It didn’t work out. However, in Zimmer’s system, Weatherly is pretty effective. During the ill-fated 2018 season, Weatherly filled in for Everson Griffen, playing 50% off all defensive snaps that year. All in all, Weatherly has registered six sacks in 58 career games, never grabbing more than three sacks in a single season.

Wonnum is the youth-infused choice. He’s the guy that creamed Aaron Rodgers from behind at Lambeau Field last year, ending the game in a Vikings victory. The young man makes plays. This summer, Zimmer and Patterson decided to “stand up” Wonnum for some 3-4 experiments. He can do more than Weatherly if the Vikings seek to get creative. In the team’s scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium on August 7th, Wonnum ripped off a bad pass from Jake Browning for a pick-six.

The safest prognostication is probably Weatherly. The team knows him, and he can perhaps wreak some havoc with Danielle Hunter back causing problems for quarterbacks. Hunter frees up a lot of pass-rushing space for others.

Starting Weatherly might be vanilla at times whereas Wonnum has the higher upside. Wonnum will get his snaps, too, but the Vikings will probably stay safe with Weatherly out of the gate – before intermixing Wonnum and Jones.

And that’s all if they don’t orchestrate another Yannick Ngakoue-like trade for somebody like Chandler Jones, who is allegedly unhappy in Arizona.