The only two defensive touchdowns by the Minnesota Vikings this season have been scored by players who once were on the practice squad. That is serving as motivation for defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
“Oh, yeah,’’ Weatherly said. “I’m going to get the next one.’’
Weatherly is one of eight players on the Vikings’ active roster who once were on their practice squad, and one of five who is a significant contributor.
This month, Anthony Harris returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown at Seattle in Week 13 and Ifeadi Odenigbo scored on a 56-yard fumble return last Sunday at the Los Angeles Chargers. Harris is a starter and ranked as the NFL’s fourth-best safety by Pro Football Focus. Odenigbo has emerged as a key reserve as an interior defensive lineman, and was on the field for 51 percent of the defensive snaps the past two games.
On offense, wide receiver Adam Thielen, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is a veteran of the practice squad. So is fullback C.J. Ham, a Pro Bowl alternate for the second straight season.
“You can credit this organization for giving guys a chance and not just writing them off because they’re practice-squad guys,’’ said Thielen, who made the squad in 2013 as a tryout player out of Division II Minnesota State Mankato and made the active roster in 2014.
Odenigbo called Thielen the “poster boy” of guys who have worked their way up from the practice squad to have success on the Vikings. Lately, Odenigbo has been doing quite well himself.
After being a seventh-round pick by Minnesota in 2017, Odenigbo was cut and spent that season on the practice squad. He was let go again before the 2018 season and had brief stints on the active roster for Cleveland and Arizona. After being cut for the fourth time in 14 months, he returned to Minnesota’s practice squad for the remainder of last year.
Odenigbo finally made the roster this season, and the continued improvement he had shown on the squad was one reason why.
“Most organizations, like when I was at Cleveland and Arizona, nobody really cares about the practice-squad guys,’’ said Odenigbo, third on the Vikings this season with five sacks. “They really don’t count them much as part of the team but here they treat you on the practice squad like a guy on the active roster. … They know that some guys come in pretty raw… They let me just improve every day.’’
Odenigbo considered the opportunity to continue to improve on the squad valuable enough that he turned down an offer last December to join Philadelphia’s 53-man roster. The Vikings also enticed him by providing a practice-squad salary equal to what he would have made with the Eagles and giving him a $130,000 signing bonus in January to re-sign on a three-year minimum deal.
“When I made the actual roster, my dad (Thomas) told me, ‘Son, you’re becoming a man,’’’ Odenigbo said. “He said, ‘When the Eagles offered, I was wondering why you didn’t go.’ He was like, ‘You’re a man now and you can make your own decisions.’ That was a big decision and it paid off in the long run.’’
Odenigbo hasn’t been the only Vikings defensive lineman in recent years to stick around when another team came calling. After being a seventh-round pick in 2016, Weatherly was cut and on the practice squad in November 2016 when New England wanted to sign him to the 53-man roster. But the Vikings offered Weatherly a spot on their active roster, and he decided to stay because he was convinced they were “invested” in his future.
“When I was on the practice squad, it was just about coming in and just working so I could get off the practice squad,’’ Weatherly said. “But the one good thing about our practice squad is you actually get to rotate in the defensive snaps so you are seen by all the coaches, not just your position coach, so it was just about getting the opportunity.’’’
Weatherly has been a valuable reserve, including being in for 34 percent of the defensive snaps this season. He started six games last season, five when Everson Griffen was out befcause of a mental health issue.
Of the former practice-squad players on Minnesota’s roster, Odenigbo, Weatherly and rookie linebacker Cameron Smith, a fifth-round pick, are the only ones once drafted. In addition to Thielen, Harris, Ham, tackle Aviante Collins and rookie wide receiver Alexander Hollins went undrafted. The Vikings also have undrafted wide receiver Chad Beebe, who spent time on their practice squad last year as a rookie and is now on injured reserve, and undrafted tackle Rashod Hill, who was claimed in 2016 as a rookie off Jacksonville’s practice squad.
Hollins, on the practice squad until being called up the day of the Seattle game, has gained inspiration seeing what Thielen has accomplished. Thielen had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2017 and 2018.
“You see where Thielen started at and we’re kind of in the same position,’’ said Hollins, who played at Eastern Illinois. “It does kind of motivate you. He’s a guy who came from a school even smaller than mine, and he came in and worked hard and look where’s he’s at now.’’
Defensive end Stacy Keely, an undrafted rookie from Alabama-Birmingham, said he has seen what Odenigbo and Weatherly have done to know there could be “light at the end of the tunnel” to be elevated from the practice squad.
“It helps the coaches for them to have examples, to say, ‘Hey, this guy, look what he’s doing and he started from where you were,’ or maybe, ‘This guy, he’s doing what he’s doing and he started below were you started,’’’ Thielen said.
Thielen isn’t the only guy on the Vikings to have worked his way up after playing at a Division II school. Ham was a running back at Augustana (S.D.) before signing with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
Ham spent his rookie year on the practice squad before being called up for the final two games, although he didn’t play. He was moved to fullback in the spring of 2017, and is now in his third season on the active roster.
“The practice squad is a great tool if you use it the right way, if you attack it with the right mindset at getting better and take an opportunity seriously,’’ Ham said. “The sky can be the limit.’’
It certainly has worked out well for Harris, who was undrafted out of Virginia in 2015 after having suffered a shoulder injury. Harris spent the bulk of his rookie season on the practice squad before the Vikings had injuries in the secondary and he found himself starting in his NFL debut in December at Arizona.
“It takes patience, but I was self motivated,’’ Harris said of working his way up.
Harris became a regular starter midway through last year and is now a fixture in Minnesota’s defense. He leads the Vikings this season with five interceptions, and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes and recovering a fumble in Week 1 against Atlanta.
Against the Seahawks, Harris scored his first NFL touchdown when he corralled a ball batted at the line of scrimmage and ran untouched into the end zone. Harris was happy to see another practice-squad veteran score a defensive touchdown in Odenigbo.
“It’s cool any time a defensive guy can get a touchdown for us, but somebody who’s kind of had to really work their way up from the bottom of the pile and really carve out an opportunity for themselves, is always rewarding to see,’’ Harris said.