Vikings Add Pass Rusher Back to Roster, with a Caveat

Vikings Add Pass Rusher Back to Roster, with a Caveat
Nov 7, 2021; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Kenny Willekes. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports.

That didn’t take long. Minnesota Vikings pass rusher Kenny Willekes was waived on Thursday to make roster space for defender Jonathan Bullard, a journeyman free agent who recently spent time with the Atlanta Falcons. But now, Willekes is back — with a caveat.

Willekes is back with the Vikings but was placed on injured reserve, presumably missing all of the upcoming 2022 regular season.

The details of the injury are not immediately clear.

Willekes, fruit of the Vikings trade with Buffalo involving Stefon Diggs, missed all of his rookie season in 2020. Then in 2021, he experienced some regular season action and showed flashes of promise. Willekes played 202 defensive snaps in 2021, tallying 18 total tackles, seven quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, and a 63.1 grade from Pro Football Focus.

The sample size was enough for Vikings fans to maintain hope for the Michigan State alumnus, perhaps to emulate Everson Griffen ten years ago. In 2010, Minnesota drafted Griffen from the 4th Round, but the former Vikings Pro Bowler didn’t blossom until the arrival of Mike Zimmer in 2014. That laid a blueprint for Vikings fans, and the idea was that Willekes could develop accordingly.

Feb 27, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Michigan State defensive lineman Kenny Willekes. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The danger, however, is that Willekes falls on the ash heap of forgotten players. Often, players beset by season-long injuries this soon in succession end up flunking out of the league, chiefly because on-the-field availability is paramount. By the time 2023 rolls around, Willekes will have missed 88% of all career games due to injury.

There must be something that catches the eye of back-to-back Vikings management regimes. Willekes “easily” could’ve been released — as was the case Thursday — and left behind. But nope. The franchise opted to re-sign the soon-to-be 25-year-old, allowing him to rehabilitate in Minnesota and possibly make an impact at a date to be named later.

Willekes was an outside contender to snag “third pass rusher” duty behind Pro Bowlers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith in 2022. With his trip to injured reserve, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, Janarius Robinson, Luiji Vilain, and Zach McCloud will vie for the primary backup pass-rushing job.

The aforementioned Bullard could also steal a roster spot.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).