Why the Slide?: Kenny Willekes

Why the Slide?: Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State
By Charlie Campbell, @draftcampbell

Six years ago, we started a series of articles on why certain prospects went undrafted. In that series, I reach out to sources with NFL teams to find out why their organizations passed on drafting a given player, and/or, what were the reasons for other teams to pass on that prospect. We got a lot of positive reader feedback about the series, so we decided to expand in the genre to investigate why some prospects slid in the draft. Four years ago, we started the Why the Slide? series, and this year it is back. Feel free to email me requests for Why the Slide? and Why Undrafted? at [email protected]. I can’t promise to get to all of them, but I will do my best and definitely will respond to the email.

Over the past couple of seasons, Kenny Willekes was one of the most consistent edge defenders in the Big Ten. While Willekes did not get the attention of the conference’s other pass rushers, like Yetur Gross-Matos or A.J. Epenesa, Willekes put up comparable production. Willekes totaled 78 tackles and 10.5 sacks s a senior after putting up 78 tackles with 20.5 for a loss, and 8.5 sacks in the previous season. Willekes was not projected to be an early-round pick, but many thought he could go in the mid-rounds based on his play over those two seasons. Thus, many were surprised when Willekes slid to the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

In speaking to team sources, Willekes slid because teams around the league did not see a skill set for him to go higher. They felt that Willekes was limited athletically and from a speed standpoint. At 6-foot-3, 264 pounds, Willekes does not have good height or length to play on the edge in the NFL. Some team sources said they had Willekes graded an an undrafted free agent, while some other teams said they had Willekes as a sixth- or seventh-round pick.

The Minnesota Vikings ended Willekes fall in the seventh round, and that was a mixed landing spot for him. On the plus side, the team has had a habit of turning mid-round picks into good edge rushers who are featured, including Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. The Vikings also let Griffen leave this offseason, so they need some new edge defenders to step up for them and fill the void. On the negative side, Minnesota took an edge rusher earlier in D.J. Wonnum, so he has a leg up on Willekes in terms of draft investment and the team’s value of the player. The Vikings also have a lot of other backup competitors, so it will be a challenge for Willekes to earn a roster spot. He could earn a practice squad spot with hopes to work his way up. At Michigan State, Willekes started out as a walk on and fought his way onto the field before becoming a good pass rusher for the Spartans. Thus, I wouldn’t count out Willekes. It would not shock me if he is an overachiever and manages to stick in the NFL despite being a late-round pick.

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