The Vikings’ salary cap currently sits at $189 million, with about $2.3 million in available cap space for this season. They already have $178 million in salary locked up for 2019.
The front office knows that if they’re going to continue to sign players such as Kirk Cousins, Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs and Xavier Rhodes to big contracts, they’re going to have to continue to make successful picks late in the draft.
Looking back to the Vikings’ 2016 draft, there were two productive seventh-round selections.
They used the 227th overall pick, which they acquired from Miami by trading the No. 186 pick for No. 196 and No. 227, to grab Vanderbilt linebacker Stephen Weatherly.
Then with their own pick at No. 244, the Vikings grabbed Clemson safety Jayron Kearse.
Weatherly — who is earning $630,000 this season on a four-year, $2.34 million deal — has taken the second-most snaps of any defensive end on the team, behind only Hunter.
He stepped in when Everson Griffen left the team for five games to address mental health issues, and Weatherly has compiled three sacks (second most on the team), eight quarterback hits, 22 tackles and a forced fumble during the Vikings’ 5-3-1 start.
Kearse, who is making $630,000 this season on a four-year, $2.4 million deal, is seeing the most playing time in his career, especially in nickel packages and stepping in when Andrew Sendejo was injured. He’s played one-fourth of the defensive snaps and about half of the snaps on special teams, where he is tied for seventh in the NFL with eight special-teams tackles. He has 19 tackles through nine games, equaling the total tackles from his first two seasons.
General Manager Rick Spielman said the draft success of Weatherly and Kearse goes back to a team philosophy of trying to get as many picks as possible.
“We have always been trying to get as many draft picks as we can in the third day, because I think the more chances you have, or the more players you’re taking those rounds, you have a better chance of potentially hitting on those guys,” he said. “As long as we stay true to our principles on what we’re looking for in players and what type of character we’re looking for on players, I have no doubt if we bring guys in here — especially in the later rounds — that check all the boxes for us, this coaching staff is going to develop them.”
Weatherly, who had a sack and a season-high four QB hits in the Vikings’ 24-9 victory over Detroit before their bye week, was asked if he’s improved a great deal since coming to the organization.
“Hands down. I have gotten a lot better, to the point where I barely recognize myself when I put on film from my rookie year,” he said.
When asked who helped with his development, Weatherly listed defensive line coach Andre Patterson, assistant defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez, former Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, Griffen and Hunter.
The leap from talented to effective in the NFL can be a huge gap, and Weatherly — who played about one of every 10 snaps a year ago — said last season was still all about learning.
“Mostly [played on] special teams with a select few snaps throughout the season on defense,” he recalled.
Did being a seventh-round pick make him wonder if he would make it in the NFL?
“I just knew from Day 1 that I was going to have to work hard, no days off, just like everyone else and keep getting better at something every day was my philosophy,” he said. “I have been doing that right up to now, so that’s why they want me around, I guess.”
Kearse had a similar viewpoint when asked if it was difficult to earn playing time.
“I think I did [earn it],” he said. “My first two years, I was mainly just a special-teams guy and I got my shot. And you know, I played good in my first opportunity and I definitely think I earned my position and I’ve earned the trust of my coaches. That is what ultimately gave me the opportunity to get on the field.”
Kearse credited the coaching staff and teammates for helping him learn the pro game.
“I would definitely say Stefon Diggs and Xavier Rhodes, they have been a big help for me, just mentoring me and telling me that no matter what goes on, just keep my head up,” Kearse said. “Also Terence Newman, he’s a coach now, but when he was on the team with us, he always helped me out with a lot of things, watching film and studying and things like that.”
Yes, the Vikings have shown this year that they’re willing to spend big money to win, but they also know that finding players such as Weatherly and Kearse late in the draft also will be vital to their long-term success.
Small town success
Marshall, Minn., is a town of 13,600. Gophers redshirt freshman tackle Blaise Andries is one of five players from his high school team currently playing college football.
A high school teammate of Andries, Drew Hmielewski, had a scholarship to play football for the Gophers but decided to concentrate on baseball at the university.
Before Andries came to campus, he knew the Gophers had only four healthy offensive lineman for a big spring practice. But now that position group is one of the best on the team.
“I remember I came and watched a practice and it was funny, they always tell me, ‘You should have been there for that practice.’ They ran something like 120 plays with four or five offensive linemen. It’s kind of funny to see how we’ve progressed and grown together over time.
“Now we have an awesome offensive line led by Jared Weyler and Donnell Greene, our seniors. Conner Olson is basically one of the older guys now, a redshirt sophomore. Me and Daniel [Faalele] are freshman. We also have Sam [Schlueter] there. It’s amazing how well we have grown together.”
The temperature for Saturday’s game against Northwestern is expected to be about 28 degrees, slightly warmer than it was last Saturday against Purdue. Andries said he really loves playing outdoors in those games.
“I’m from Minnesota and I’m used to the cold,” he said. “I was pretty excited to get back out in the cold. I know some of our guys, like some of the southern boys like Donnelle and Daniel, weren’t having a lot of fun with the cold, but you know, they got used to it pretty quickly. We all played together and it was a ton of fun, to be honest, especially with the snow.”
The Gophers received one big benefit from when the Vikings played at TCF Bank Stadium for two seasons in 2014 and 2015 while U.S. Bank Stadium was being built: The Vikings had heating coils installed underneath the turf to keep it warm on cold game days like this Saturday.