Kenny Willekes turned a promotion into production.
The 24-year-old defensive lineman, who was chosen in the seventh round (225th overall) of the 2020 NFL draft but didn’t appear in a game that season, was elevated from the practice squad and signed to Minnesota’s active roster one day before the Vikings hosted Chicago in their 2021 finale.
Willekes made his bosses look smart Sunday, sacking Bears quarterback Andy Dalton on two occasions.
The Michigan State product played 40 snaps – his second-highest snap count this season – and made three tackles and recorded three quarterback hits to go along with his two takedowns.
Willekes was the co-leader of a Minnesota pass rush Sunday that was quietly scary all season.
The Vikings took Dalton to the ground seven times, upping their season sack total to 51, which ranked second in the NFL to Pittsburgh (55). Two other players, linebacker Anthony Barr and second-year defensive end D.J. Wonnum tied Willekes for the team lead with two sacks apiece.
Even veteran defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, known for being a run stuffer, joined the sack party.
The most impressive performance, however, belonged to Willekes. Not because he’s a second-rate player but because it came out of the blue. He’s bounced between the practice squad and active roster all year.
Willekes went from undersized walk-on with the Spartans to two-time team MVP and No. 1 in school history with 51 tackles for loss by the time he departed for the next level. He won the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy, which honors the nation’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. He was the 2018 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year … in a conference flooded with NFL pass rushers.
The 6-foot-3, 264-pounder had a similar start to his NFL career, tallying 18 tackles in just six games.
On Chicago’s final drive Sunday, Willekes channeled his underdog mentality and sacked Dalton twice in a span of three plays for a combined loss of 15 yards. We call that seizing the day.
Other notables from Sunday’s snap counts:
– Rookie receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette received his largest snap share of the season Sunday, playing half of the team’s offensive snaps. He produced, too. Smith-Marsette burned the Bears secondary for a 44-yard touchdown in the third quarter and tallied three catches for 103 yards.
– Dalvin Cook’s workload seemed to be restricted in Minnesota’s final two games. He played 54% of the snaps on offense for the second consecutive week and gained 82 yards on just 15 touches – that’s after carrying the rock only nine times in the Week 17 loss to Green Bay.
– First-year Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson compiled his best game in purple in Sunday’s finale. The ex-Arizona Cardinal recorded a season-high seven tackles and his first interception – a 66-yard house call – keeping alive a streak of picking off at least one throw, 11 years in a row.
– Linebacker Nick Vigil ended his sixth season the way he started it – by playing 100% of the team’s defensive snaps. Vigil filled in for Eric Kendricks, who wasn’t activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list, and posted seven tackles (five solo). Vigil’s versatility helped the 28-year-old linebacker make 12 starts in his first season in Minnesota.