The philosophical pass-rusher: Stephen Weatherly filling void for Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. -- The topic du jour could be about anything: cryptocurrencies, how much a barrel of scorpion’s blood costs, whether the earth is flat or if walleye is considered seafood; topics drummed up by divergent thinking that brings his out-of-the-box ideas to the forefront for others to consider.

Stephen Weatherly is a master conversationalist whose free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness thinking captivates the Minnesota Vikings' locker room through random factoids and philosophies few might consider as part of everyday conversation.

After all, Weatherly, the Vikings' third-year pass-rusher, holds a degree in sociology from Vanderbilt. He’s a polymath whose many interests transcend football, having mastered nine different instruments from the flute to the steel drums. His teammates recently discovered his passion for cooking as recipients of his creations that range from cupcakes to sweet potato pie.

“You’ve kind of got it wrapped up in a bow right there,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson laughed. “He’s one of those quirky guys who's very out of the box sometimes, but when he’s on the field, he’s focused. His football IQ is up there.”

Personality and pass-rusher packaged into one, Weatherly has become the Vikings' very own unicorn.

“He just beats to his own drum,” said running back Latavius Murray, whose locker is two away from Weatherly’s. “Nowadays, especially in the locker room, there’s always that one guy. It’s entertaining, but I think it keeps everybody sane, too. It humbles everybody.”

Meanwhile, behind Murray, Weatherly is engaged in a conversation with safety Harrison Smith where the phrase “conspiracy theory” is uttered at least two times.

In all seriousness, Weatherly’s impact is as important on the field as it is with the dynamic he brings as a teammate. Since Week 3, the defensive end has filled a critical void for the Vikings' pass rush in place of Everson Griffen, who is away from the team as he deals with issues related to mental health.

Weatherly went from a rotational player who notched 90 total defensive snaps last season to an indefinite starter opposite DE Danielle Hunter.

Stepping in while Griffen is away is something Weatherly’s teammates say he takes personally. Asked over time about his progression as an NFL player since he was drafted by Minnesota in the seventh round in 2016, Weatherly would often credit Griffen for helping him come into his own as a pass-rusher. Griffen’s belongings remain in the locker directly to the left of Weatherly’s, a reminder of the player who has helped show him the way and the opportunity Weatherly has to pick up where the Pro Bowl defensive end left off.

“He’s holding it down for Griff, but definitely, definitely, definitely, he’s making his own name in this league and playing with his own enthusiasm,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “He knows that, too. He doesn’t want to be the reason we’re not winning.”

In a season-turning win at Philadelphia, Weatherly made a play that broke the game open at a critical time. With under five minutes to play in the first half and the Eagles and Vikings tied 3-3, Weatherly burst off the left side of the line and put an inside move on Carson Wentz. As he hit the quarterback, Weatherly noticed the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field was quiet, which meant one thing: The ball was out of Wentz’s hands and in the air.

Weatherly didn’t know until well after the play that he also had forced a fumble while sacking Wentz that Linval Joseph caught midair and returned 64 yards for a touchdown.

“Nooooope!” Weatherly said when asked postgame if he had seen the ball pop out. “I was just trying not to fall on him. Ba dum chhhhh.”

Another minute into his fourth of fifth postgame interview, Weatherly paused to let a muscle cramp in his chest pass. Without reserve rusher Tashawn Bower, Minnesota was down to two true defensive ends between Weatherly and Hunter. In just his third game as a starter, Weatherly played 92 percent of defensive snaps.

His confidence as a pass-rusher is apparent in different areas. No longer stopping his feet on the rush to measure where he’s at is at the top of the list for coach Mike Zimmer, allowing Weatherly to affect the quarterback more efficiently (two sacks, three hits, seven hurries in four games). But it’s more than just mastering new techniques that have allowed Weatherly to take the next step when his team needs him the most.

“I think the biggest thing that Stephen has done, he’s playing more free and just reacting and playing,” Zimmer said. “I think he feels like he belongs, and so he goes out there with confidence.”

The self-awareness he displays proudly is a quality that contributes to him being more than just a talented pass-rusher. It comes in the form of being unapologetically true to himself, whether that means squawking like a bird while walking from the showers to his locker or reminding those around him to vote in midterm elections on his way to a meeting.

And the biggest impact for the Vikings is in how far Weatherly realizes he has come, through the way he has performed with increased playing time and expectations riding on his shoulders, all while he embraces the things that have helped him hit his stride.

“Every game, I learn something new about me,” Weatherly said. “I learn what I’m good at, I learn what I default to, I learn how I pass rush, how I play, how I play when I’m tired. Those are things I can work on in practice. You don’t know until you get in there and finally mix it up. But it’s good that I get to find out my weaknesses now so I can work on them throughout the week while I’m still young.”