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Projecting the Vikings' 53-Man Roster: Linebackers

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The summer reading list is going to be taking a week off this week, largely because with Training Camp (mercifully) starting on Friday, I need to get the rest of the roster projections done.

I AM making another change since the last time I did this, and have decided that Martail Burnett is not going to make the final roster after all.  I decided that I needed room for more DBs and LBs, and he was the most logical candidate to go.  So, with that, here's what the roster looks like so far:

QB (3) - Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte, John David Booty
RB (3) - Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Maurice Hicks
FB (2) - Thomas Tapeh, Jeff Dugan
WR (6) - Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Bobby Wade, Aundrae Allison, Robert Ferguson, Jaymar Johnson
TE (3) - Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, Garrett Mills
OL (9) - Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, Anthony Herrera, Ryan Cook, Artis Hicks, John Sullivan, Chase Johnson, Drew Radovich
DL (9) - Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, Ellis Wyms, Fred Evans, Brian Robison, Jayme Mitchell, Letroy Guion
K (1) - Ryan Longwell
P (1) - Chris Kluwe
LS (1) - Cullen Loeffler

Total spots occupied - 38/53

So we have 15 spots left to be filled.  Let's fill. . .oh. . .we'll say about seven of those spots, shall we?

Here are all of the linebackers currently in the employ of the Beloved Purple.

Number Name Height Weight Experience College
49 J Leman 6'2" 245 UDFA Illinois
50 Erin Henderson 6'3" 245 UDFA Maryland
51 Ben Leber 6'3" 245 7 Kansas State
52 Chad Greenway 6'2" 240 3 Iowa
54 Vinny Ciurciu 6'0" 235 6 Boston College
55 Derrick Pope 6'0" 230 5 Alabama
56 E.J. Henderson 6'1" 245 6 Maryland
57 Rufus Alexander 6'1" 225 1 Oklahoma
58 David Herron 6'1" 240 1 Michigan State
59 Heath Farwell 6'0" 235 4 San Diego State

The Vikings have quite a bit of versatility at the linebacker spot, and a few of the guys that make the team at this position are going to have a big role on special teams this year as well.  But, let's start with the three guys that, really, shouldn't be anywhere near the special teams.

After taking a little while to get a feel for things at the NFL level, as well as getting bounced back and forth from the middle to the outside, E.J. Henderson officially became a monster in 2007.  There are few middle linebackers in the NFL that tackle as surely or hit as hard as Henderson does, and very few that play the run better than #56.  However, Henderson's biggest deficiency is his coverage ability.  He's not a complete liability or anything, but there are times that he doesn't get as deep in his zone as he needs to, and that allows teams to kill the Vikings over the middle of the field.  Hopefully with the Vikings' vastly improved pass rush, that won't be nearly as big an issue this year.  He's also an outstanding blitzer but, again, I hope to see him be forced to do that less often in 2008.

On the outsides, we have the promising Chad Greenway, who was essentially playing his rookie season in 2007 after missing all of 2006 with a torn knee ligament.  Greenway certainly had his moments in 2007, notching a couple of interceptions, recovering fumbles on four different occasions, and finishing second to Henderson in tackles.  Greenway had plenty of times where he showed flashes of brilliance, such as the game against the New York Giants where he intercepted an Eli Manning pass and took it back for a touchdown.  He also had games where he showed he had some room to grow, such as the game against Oakland where he grabbed what should have been the game-clinching interception. . .and promptly fumbled the ball back to the Raiders.  Overall, however, I think his pluses greatly outweight his minuses, and I'm excited to see what he brings to us this season.

The other side is held down by Mr. Consistent, Ben Leber.  He's probably the most underrated member of the Vikings' defense. . .he just goes out and goes about his job quietly, not really getting beaten that often, and just always seems to be in the right place at the right time.  He's the elder statesman of the Vikings' linebackers, but I don't see anyone replacing him at this point, and they shouldn't.  He tied for the team lead in sacks in 2007, as well as intercepted a couple of passes.  Signing Ben Leber was about the only smart move that Fran Foley made in his few months running the Vikings' personnel operations, and I'm quite happy to have him here.

The three primary backups will, in all likelihood, be three of Minnesota's biggest special teams contributors.

The main backup at all three linebacker positions will more than likely be Derrick Pope, who the Vikings signed this off-season from the Miami Dolphins.  Pope is a very good special teamer, but also showed some ability as a linebacker with the Dolphins as well, as he stepped in to start in the middle after the injury to Zack Thomas.  Having only started 9 games in Thomas' stead, he still managed 64 total tackles, along with three passes defended and two interceptions.  He'll fill the role that Dontarrious Thomas filled for the Vikings the past few years. . .hopefully much better than Thomas did.

Heath Farwell has probably been the Vikings' best special teams coverage guy for the past few years.  It's rare that there's a kickoff return or punt return that doesn't see #59 right in the vicinity of the football.  Farwell had 30 tackles in 2007, 25 of which were solo, and almost all of them came on special teams coverage.  While I'm sure that Farwell would love to see more time on the field as an actual linebacker, it seems that his true calling might be as a Steve Tasker-esque special teams. . .er, specialist.  But he fills that capacity like few players in the league do, in my opinion, and hopefully he'll be terrorizing opposing kick and punt returners for the Vikings for many years to come.

Vinny Ciurciu was also heralded as a special teams master when the Vikings signed him prior to the 2007 season.  However, Ciurciu only managed to notch 12 tackles in 2007, and the one thing I remember most about his play was him getting faked out of his shoes by a punter on a fake punt.  Not the kind of impression one should be making.  Ciurciu didn't see the field much as a linebacker in 2007. . .heck, he might not have seen it at all as a linebacker. . .so he's going to have to make his living on special teams again.  I have him making the roster for now, but I think he's one of the guys that's going to have to watch his back as far as maintaining his employment.  Why?

Because if he doesn't watch his back, one of the guys that's going to be involved in the steel cage match for the last linebacker spot (on my version of the roster, anyway) might step up and take his spot away from him.  While there are four players that I haven't mentioned yet, I think it's going to come down to two of them for the final roster spot, and they could both make the roster if Ciurciu doesn't step up his game.

The first one is Rufus Alexander, Minnesota's sixth-round selection in 2007 who, like Chad Greenway the year before, managed to get in all of one quarter of one pre-season game before blowing out his knee and having to go on injured reserve for the year.  Alexander has decent speed and some good coverage skills, while he's not nearly as solid against the run.  Whether he makes the team or not is going to depend on how well he's recovered from his knee injury.

The other is E.J. Henderson's younger brother Erin, who the Vikings grabbed as a UDFA in this year's post-draft signing binge.  Many scouts and scouting services had a second-round grade on the younger Henderson, but he managed to slip through the entire draft unselected.  The biggest knock on Erin Henderson seems to be his durability, as he red-shirted in 2004 and missed all of his 2005 season with the Terps due to a torn ACL.  However, he only missed one game in his final two seasons, so I'm not sure how well-founded those concerns would be.  Like E.J., his coverage skills aren't outstanding yet, but he has plenty of room to grow and improve in those areas.

As far as the last two names, I don't see J Leman or David Herron making much of an impact.  That and I don't know a hell of a lot about either guy, except that Herron was the guy that the Patriots signed in 2007 when they got angry about the Vikings signing Garrett Mills off their practice squad.

So, with that, here's how I see the final linebacker battle shaking out:

Starters:  Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson, Chad Greenway
Backups:  Derrick Pope, Heath Farwell, Vinny Ciurciu, Erin Henderson
Cut:  J Leman, David Herron, Rufus Alexander

Problems or concerns with the linebackers?  Or, perhaps, with the projected roster in general at this point?  Feel free to discuss them here.  Only one position left to go, and I'll be sure to get to it prior to camp getting underway this Friday.  Have a good rest of your weekend, everybody!