The Vikings Should Not Draft Edge on Days 2 and 3
The Two Superstars
It was a scary sight for NFL quarterbacks when the Vikings brought in Za´Darius Smith for a visit after he was cut by the Packers. Shortly after the visit, word came out that the Vikings would actually sign the former Packer. He was only half of the reason why opponents were scared. The other half was Danielle Hunter.
The career Viking Hunter and the newly signed Viking Smith form a formidable duo of edge rushers. In 2019, Hunter ranked fourth and Smith sixth among the NFL´s top pass rushers in the sack category. Smith led the league in QB knockdowns and gave the Vikings’ pass protectors a lot of issues.
Neither of the two pass rushers had any problems on the field. Their issue was their health. Hunter played only seven games last season after missing the full 2020-season with a herniated disc. Meanwhile, Za´Darius missed almost the full 2021 season with a back injury.
It can be viewed as the first gamble in the young career of first-year GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. If both guys are on the field simultaneously, opponents are in danger. If one of the two plays, opponents are still in trouble, and someone else has to step up. But it´s possible that neither of the two will be on the field, like in 2021. It is without any doubt a “high risk, high reward” signing.
Backups With Potential
Behind the two starters, the Vikings have only young pass rushers on the roster. The question is: can one of them step up and become a reliable alternative and rotational player — to relieve Hunter and Smith at times? In each of the two recent drafts, former general manager Rick Spielman selected two pass rushers.
2020 – D.J. Wonnum & Kenny Willekes
Wonnum is certainly the most experienced player among the four young players. In his two seasons in the league, he appeared in 31 games and started 16 of them, including 14 starts in 2021. The fourth-round pick registered 11 sacks so far in his young career. He has shown flashes as a pass rusher but has been a liability stopping the run. Per PFF, his overall grades were 51.1 and 50.2 and ranked him 101st and 99th of 108 edge rushers. Adding some weight and strength in the offseason could help him in the future, especially against the run.
On the same day as Wonnum, the Vikings selected the former Michigan walk-on, Kenny Willekes, in the seventh round. Other than Wonnum, Willekes did not have the same opportunity as his teammate. While Wonnum played 1,423 defensive snaps, Willekes only played 202. The former Wolverine missed his rookie season with a leg injury. He appeared in six games, without starting one of them in 2021, while making a significant impact in two games. In Week 9 against the Ravens, the pass rusher played on 41 downs and recorded seven tackles, half a sack, and two QB hits. In the final game of the season against the Bears, he finished with two sacks, two TFLs, and three QB hits. His PFF grade in limited snaps was 63.1. Willekes has shown flashes to be more than just a depth guy, and a strong preseason could help him get more opportunities.
2021 – Patrick Jones & Janarius Robinson
GM Rick Spielman used four third-round picks in the 2021 draft for Kellen Mond, Chazz Surratt, Wyatt Davis, and Patrick Jones II. Jones II was a consensus first-team All-American in 2020 while playing for Pittsburgh. He had a bad performance at his pro day, including a 40-yard dash of 4.94 seconds, and therefore fell into the third round to pick 90. Jones II was active in nine games of his rookie campaign and played 99 snaps on defense. He did not record a sack, but seven tackles. Third-round players are expected to contribute at some point. If he can beat out some of the other players in training camp, he´ll get his opportunities in 2022.
One day later, in the fourth round, the Vikings selected the Florida State Seminole, Janarius Robinson. Like Kenny Willekes one year before him, he missed his full rookie season on injured reserve. He has impressive long arms. At his pro day, his wingspan was measured at 86 inches – 97 percentile among defensive ends. He has the physical tools to become a good player, but the lost rookie season hurt his stock. PFF noted in their draft guide:
Robinson has an upward trajectory heading into the NFL. There’s reason to think he could be more impactful in the league.PFF – 2021 Draft Guide
2022 Draft Plan
Unless the Vikings fall in love with a phenomenal edge rusher in the first round like Kayvon Thibodeaux, Jermaine Johnson, or George Karlaftis to be their long-term solution at the position and a pass rusher is truly the best player available, there´s no need to draft another one. There are already four developmental young rushers with potential on the roster. They deserve opportunities to show what they can bring to the table before the team looks for different options.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who has a fable for numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. He likes to argue about the Vikings on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt