Statistics don’t mean much to Mike Zimmer until after Thanksgiving, when the Vikings coach said he first begins evaluations of his team’s rankings against the rest of the league.
With two games left in the NFL regular season, one number — 22 — reveals how much his fourth-ranked Vikings defense has overcome compared to the rest. It’s the number of games missed due to injury and illness by Vikings defenders who started Week 1.
Health has been fleeting for the Vikings defense this season, but silver linings have emerged in the form of such reserves as defensive end Stephen Weatherly, safety Anthony Harris, cornerback Holton Hill and linebacker Eric Wilson. Those four not only answered a pressing preseason question of defensive depth, but they also could be long-term, cheaper solutions in an expensive starting lineup.
“It was difficult losing [cornerback] Mike Hughes, because he would have been one of those guys,” Zimmer said. “But Holton has come in and done a nice job. I think Anthony Harris has come in and proven that he can play in this league.”
Only one other top-10 defense, the Chargers’ at No. 8, has weathered more absences (33) than the Vikings’. The Vikings have 30 absences when accounting for Hughes, the standout rookie who earned a rotational role before his season-ending knee injury in October.
Opponents have lamented the “waves” of pass rushers brought by the Vikings, but the secondary has shown it, too, has a long bench. Only three quarterbacks — Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Tom Brady — have eclipsed 300 passing yards against the Vikings.
The Eagles’ Wentz, on Oct. 7, was the last quarterback to throw for two touchdowns despite the Vikings secondary taking on 20 of the defense’s 30 absences, when counting Hughes. Safety Andrew Sendejo, on injured reserve, has missed nine games. Cornerback Trae Waynes has missed two games and parts of more. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes also has been in and out of the lineup while missing one game altogether.
“The depth we have here at DBs is unbelievable,” Rhodes said.
General Manager Rick Spielman had been critical in recent years of his track record signing undrafted free agents, but he’s turned it around with Harris (2015), Wilson (2017) and Hill (2018). Wilson appeared in most of three games missed by linebacker Anthony Barr.
The other critical numbers are those undrafted salaries. Under-the-radar players supplement high-priced stars when they mature faster than their rookie contracts expire. Growing up quickly in the NFL is not common.
Harris makes $705,000, Weatherly $630,000.
“Obviously, they do a good job of getting good talent,” Harris said of the Vikings. “But I think also the guys that come in, they understand offenses, understand concepts. They’re really high-quality guys on the field and off the field. That translates.”
Defenders often gather at a teammate’s home to watch “Monday Night Football,” according to Harris, who credited off-field bonding with the on-field cohesion that exists even when a starter goes down.
“Secondary guys, we do it, but there’s time where we gather with a few linebackers, defensive linemen,” Harris said. “It’s not just a simple defensive back thing. We’re all good friends off the field as well.”
Buying into the team-first vision isn’t always easy. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander has been candid about his own immaturity when the second-round pick was asked to play a limited role in the slot. But veteran Terence Newman helped ease that transition.
Weatherly, who has started six games for defensive end Everson Griffen, has received similar tutelage from former team captain Brian Robison, Griffen and Danielle Hunter, a first-time Pro Bowler this season.
“He was kind of like me when I came in,” Hunter said. “He sat down, took notes, became a student of the game.”
Now Weatherly is approaching a momentous step: his next contract. The former seventh-round pick is eligible for a contract extension this offseason, before he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
Weatherly’s answer when asked of his long-term future in Minnesota speaks to the culture necessary for grooming talent in the margins of top draft picks and high-priced free agents.
“Honestly, this team means everything,” Weatherly said. “I don’t know, whatever happens — happens. I’d be super happy [to sign a new contract], but if not, that’s cool, too. Just keep working.”