When the Vikings traded veteran defensive end Stephen Weatherly to the Broncos last weekend in what was essentially a salary dump that gives Weatherly a change of scenery, the natural inclination was to expect rookie Patrick Jones II to be first in line to take over those newly-available snaps at DE. After all, Jones was a third-round pick this year who has ideal size for the position and racked up 17.5 sacks in his final two seasons at Pitt.
But reading between the lines of comments from the Vikings' coaching staff on Wednesday, it seems like another young pass rusher might be ahead of Jones on the totem pole. That would be practice squad DE Kenny Willekes, a seventh-round pick in 2020 who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. This is just speculation, but it sounds like there's a chance the former Michigan State star could get elevated to the gameday roster this week and make his NFL debut.
"It’s possible," was Mike Zimmer's answer earlier this week when asked about Jones replacing Weatherly. "You know, he’s another guy that’s working into things, [and] we’ve got some other guys we might elevate, move guys around."
Zimmer mentioning a practice squad elevation seems notable, as Willekes is the only edge rusher among that group of 16 players. On Wednesday, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson also brought up Willekes when asked about Jones.
"I've got two young guys," Patterson said. "You know, Pat is doing a good job, he's getting better every single day. And then Kenny Willekes is doing a great job. They're both going to get reps [this week] and I'll see how it plays out on Sunday. That's the good thing [about the Weatherly trade], is that there were two young players at that position that I felt very comfortable with."
Despite Jones' production in college, he's still pretty raw. Patterson and other Vikings coaches are working with him on refining his technique and learning their scheme. Jones was a healthy scratch in each of the first six games, and there's no guarantee that he'll be active on Sunday even with Weatherly gone. It's going to come down to which of the two looks better in practice this week.
Patterson has preached patience and constant improvement when talking to Jones, citing the examples of the Vikings' two starters at defensive end and how they weren't Pro Bowl-caliber players right away.
"He's good with [the playbook]," Patterson said of Jones. "He's good at what he's supposed to do. It's just continuing to master the technique of how we play the run, how we rush the passer. It's the same progression that all young guys go through. They all do. I was telling him the other day, [Everson Griffen] didn't start here for five years. He's a pretty good player now, isn't he? It took [Danielle Hunter] until the middle of the season of his second year. He's a pretty good player now, right?
"I get it, he was drafted in the third round and everybody wants to see him now. But you've gotta put him out there when he can go help this team win. Every week is important for us and you've gotta put the guys out there that can give you the best opportunity to win, while you keep developing those guys that you know are going to be good players down the road."
Willekes probably doesn't have the long-term upside of Jones. He's an inch shorter, has shorter arms, and doesn't quite have the same burst in his first step. There's a reason why Willekes was a seventh-rounder and Jones was taken in the third.
But when choosing one guy to play 8-12 snaps on Sunday against the Cowboys and moving forward — Weatherly averaged 10.6 snaps per game in five contests where Griffen, Hunter, and D.J. Wonnum were active — Willekes might be the guy. Coaches have praised the way he bounced back from the ACL injury last year and competes in practice. He shined against the run in college, with 25.5 non-sack tackles for loss to go along with 23.5 sacks over his three years as a starter in the Big Ten. Willekes did 32 bench press reps at the 2020 combine, so he clearly has the strength to hold up on early downs. And he has the benefit of an extra year learning the Vikings' system, even if he was injured as a rookie.
Their preseason performance could also be an indicator. Willekes and Jones each played exactly 57 snaps in August, and Willekes was significantly more productive. He had four pressures, six tackles, and an 86.1 PFF grade. Jones had zero pressures, three tackles (one for loss), and was charged with a team-high four missed tackles. His PFF grade was 52.4. That's a small sample size, but it's all the NFL data we have on the two players.
Depending on how this week's practices play out, Jones could certainly be the guy who wins that No. 4 DE job and makes his NFL debut on Sunday night. But after listening to Zimmer and Patterson talk about it, I'm leaning towards expecting Willekes to get the nod instead.
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