Bears coach Matt Nagy shouldn’t be the only one taking a glance toward 2020 on Sunday.
Of the 15 pending free agents on the Vikings active roster, 10 are reserves who could start — or at least see more playing time — during the Vikings’ season finale against the Bears. Sunday’s result will only affect the NFL draft order. The NFC’s sixth seed is secure in Minnesota, but Vikings executives and coaches will be watching closely ahead of offseason negotiations.
For defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who made six starts last year for Everson Griffen, getting his seventh start and a full-time role at his normal position would be no small matter. Weatherly has played a part-time role this season, primarily as an interior pass rusher.
“It would mean everything,” Weatherly said. “Just going out there and playing more. If for some reason I got the start, just to show the Minnesota Vikings that if push came to shove, I’d be able to do that kind of like I did last year.”
Other Vikings reserves with expiring contracts who could see substantial playing time are quarterback Sean Mannion, tackle Rashod Hill, receiver Laquon Treadwell, running back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker Kentrell Brothers and safety Jayron Kearse, who is listed as questionable because of a foot injury.
Coach Mike Zimmer entertained questions this week about playing the second-team offense and defense but has stopped short of saying quarterback Kirk Cousins and Co. will sit. Indications are many starters will rest ahead of an NFC wild-card game on Jan. 4 or Jan. 5.
Deliberations haven’t been easy, according to Zimmer, who alluded to some starters lobbying to play.
“It’s always a Catch-22, because you always want to go out and you always want to play well,” Zimmer said Friday. “These guys like to play. You don’t want to get anybody hurt. You want to start focusing on the new season that is coming up here in a week. There has been a lot of consternation, I guess, on trying to figure everything out.”
Mannion led a quarterback drill during the portion of Friday’s practice open to reporters. He took snaps this week from reserve offensive lineman Dakota Dozier, another pending free agent who has already started four games this season at left guard and right guard.
With 10 offensive linemen on the roster, the Vikings offense could field a different line with Hill, guard Dru Samia, Dozier, guard Aviante Collins and tackle Oli Udoh. Playing time would also be crucial for Samia and Udoh, two drafted rookies who have combined to suit up for one game this season. Dozier, who typically stays after practice for more work, was joined this week by Mannion for more snapping reps.
“It’s like when you literally get on a bike — like, ‘OK, we’re steady, and now we’re good,’ ” Dozier said. “You just have to get back on the bike and roll with it.”
It would be Mannion’s second NFL start, again in a regular-season finale; the former 2015 third-round pick first started in the Rams’ final game two years ago. He threw for 169 yards in a loss. He’s been precisely what the Vikings coaching staff wanted in another veteran set of eyes on the sideline to help Cousins. Mannion said he’d like to stay, and playing well could go a long way.
“Me, my wife, my daughter, we love being with the Vikings and in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. This organization has been awesome since Day 1, it’s felt like home,” Mannion said. “A lot of things can change in this league, but we’ve enjoyed every minute here and would definitely love to be back.”
Weatherly, a 2016 seventh-round pick by the Vikings, gave credence to Sunday’s stakes, even if the final score doesn’t carry much weight.
“I do have a second family here and it does feel like home,” Weatherly said. “So, to be able to go out there [Sunday] and play, and then play here even longer would be outstanding.”