The Minnesota Vikings 15-man draft class this offseason was the largest during the modern draft era.
With so many names and prospects to track, a few have fallen under the radar, but one seventh-rounder has drawn comparisons to a Vikings fan favorite and legendary defensive end, Brian Robison.
Drafted 225th overall, Kenny Willekes of Michigan State was regarded as the top pass-rusher steal of the 2020 draft, according to NFL Network’s Charles Davis :
“He plays redlining it man. He plays like Cole Trickle driving his car in Days of Thunder early before they taught him how to not burn up the tires.
This kid gets after it, he’s going to be a lot like Brian Robison was — the former Viking — a seventh-round value, a big time guy.”
The comparison hits on several levels. Willekes — like Robison — is a relatively unknown prospect, but with top-tier athletic ability.
And if it ultimately rings true, the Vikings may have found a major value in the seventh-round rookie as Robison became a rotational pass rush specialist and the franchise’s fifth all-time leader in sacks .
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A Former Walk-On Turned Team MVP
Willekes was a walk-on at Michigan State and ultimately earned himself the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy, which is awarded annually to the country’s best player who was a former walk-on.
He was named the Big 10 Defensive Lineman of the Year and Michigan State’s Team MVP award in his redshirt senior year with the Spartans after he accumulated 78 tackles and 10.5 sacks in 2019.
Willekes finished his career at Michigan State with the most tackles for loss (51) and ranked third in program history with 26 career sacks, the majority he racked up in his final three seasons.
Standing 6-foot-3, Willekes’ arm length has been his biggest critique but as a former walk-on, Willekes is no stranger to being underestimated and “is a classic overachiever,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper said.
“He’ll have to battle his way onto that roster,” Kiper said. “I think you look at a guy, a classic overachiever. He doesn’t have long arms … but he has that knack for getting after the quarterback.
He anticipates that snap and wants to beat that offensive tackle out of his stance, and he does it a decent amount of times… He’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t want to bet against because he’s overcome the odds and became a heck of a player at Michigan State for the Spartans.”
Willekes tested in the 88th percentile for bench press, 84th percentile for his broad jump, and above average in his 40-yard dash and vertical jump among defensive linemen. He also ranked in the top 10 at his position in most NFL Scouting Combine measurables, including his 32 bench press reps which were the second-best mark.
Despite his proven athleticism, Willekes, considered a third to sixth round prospect, slipped to the seventh round as 28 defensive linemen were selected before him.
Willekes Runs Up A Wall To Answer Doubts of His Athleticism
The Spartans were unable to have a Pro Day due to coronavirus and after questions around Willekes’ athleticism circulated message boards, he put together a reel of him running up walls, doing backflips and hitting splits to debunk his doubters’ claims.
“Not athletic, below-average athleticism for edge rusher”
“Physical tools don’t jump off the page”
“Isn’t a good athlete”
“Has pedestrian physical gifts”
Shhhh Just watch… pic.twitter.com/LpvLpzBu9C
— Kendrick4️⃣8️⃣ (@kennyw97) March 26, 2020
Willekes’ brother is an Olympic-level trampoline gymnast, recently competing in the 2020 Olympic trials and clearly was gifted with similar abilities.
And while these skills may not transfer to football, Willekes told Sky Sports his production “speaks for itself .”
“I can do the splits, I can run up the wall and do a back-flip, I felt like I just wanted to show people that side of me. You have all the internet trolls like ‘how does this relate to football?’ – it doesn’t relate to football but I think my production speaks for itself,” he said.
Willekes models his play after Demarcus Ware, Von Miller Chandler Jones, and versatile three-down edge rushers like Khalil Mack and Frank Clark. He’s set to compete for a role among the Vikings’ defensive end groups at training camp in July.