It's no coincidence that as the play of the Minnesota Vikings linebacker corps has deteriorated over the last few seasons, so has the defense overall. In 2009, with a unit of Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson, and Chad Greenway, the Vikings linebackers were an under rated but solid group, and they had one of the better overall defenses in the NFL.
But as time and injuries mounted, they went from solid to pretty awful. Over at Vikings Territory, Arif has painstakingly chronicled Greenway's demise, and going on four years later, Minnesota still needs to find an answer at the strong side and in the middle.
And even though Greenway has slipped as a player, he was still the only realistic option the Vikings could play at the Sam spot. But that might be changing this year, as there are several young players with a lot to prove gunning for some starting jobs. And if the secondary can shake out in one of several directions, you might be able to double the depth chart outcomes for the linebackers. Let's get to it.
Wait, before we do, point of order: new coach Mike Zimmer has said, in effect, that he's going to try different guys at different linebacker positions, so as I do this list, I'm just going to go with the best players, and not really pay attention to how many Sam, Will, or Mike linebackers there are. That will all get hashed out in camp, but for now, that's how I'm approaching this. Cool? Cool.
Chad Greenway: I'm not going to re-hash his demise, go read Arif's breakdown. That said, I still think there is a spot for him on this team, maybe at the Mike. The Vikings have looked at him there a little bit during the off-season OTA's and minicamps, and it also seems he's responding to the attack philosophy of the new defense. There is little to no veteran leadership in this group, other than Greenway, so I would be stunned to not see him on the final 53 man roster.
Anthony Barr: I know that the coaching staff has been trying to tamper down expectations about Barr, but when you're a top 10 pick, you're going to play early and often. His athletic ability stands out, and as soon as he can catch up to where everyone else is (he missed most of the OTA's due to UCLA being on the quarters system), I'd expect to see Barr starting.
Jasper Brinkley: Brinkley was brought back after a one year stint in Arizona. I thought it was curious that the Vikings coaching staff let Brinkley walk and kept Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell...wait, no I'm not, based on how the roster was mismanaged last season. Brinkley isn't going to set the world on fire, but he's solid against the run, and situationally he can be an effective player.
Audie Cole: When Cole finally got a shot late in the 2013 season, he did okay. he didn't set the world on fire, but his overall play wasn't horrid...and that was a major step up from what we had seen for most of the 2013 season. Cole's a DN legend--I think almost everyone who drops by this little corner of the Internet loves the guy and wants him to succeed, myself included, and with the new staff he is finally on equal footing with everyone else, and will get a fair shot to win a job.
Gerald Hodges: At least Cole got a chance to play. One of the things I really didn't understand about last year was the inability of the staff to make changes in player packages when it became apparent that guys weren't getting it done. Hodges came out of Penn State with a reputation as a solid pass coverage guy, yet he never really got an opportunity to showcase whether or not he could do it. This year, he'll get a fair shot, but there's more talent in this group than there was this time last year.
Michael Mauti: Other than Mauti's family, I doubt there's been a bigger fan of this guy than me since he was drafted. Mauti's issue is health--three ACL tears in two years was the reason he slipped to the seventh round, and he came to OTA's and training camp still rehabbing. He saw the field a bit in pre-season and on special teams during the regular season, and he was a guy that stood out. This year, he's healthy, and if he can stay that way, he's a guy I'd expect to see on the field a lot in 2014.
Larry Dean: Dean has been a special teams standout for a few seasons now, but I get the feeling that with all the new talent coming in from the last couple of drafts, just being a good special teams guy might not be enough, especially at the linebacker position. And Dean is caught in the dilemma guys like Hodges, Cole, and Mauti are. Yeah, there's a new staff so everyone will get a fair shot, but there's one, maybe two spots available for five or six guys.
Dom DeCicco: DeCicco has the most experience of guys generally considered to be near the bottom of the depth chart, with two years of NFL experience under his belt with the Bears. His experience will help him, to be sure, but he has a long climb over a lot of guys to get a roster spot. But if there's a spot on this team that's a great unknown, it's most of these linebackers.
Brandon Watts/Mike Zimmer: Watts is a seventh round pick, and Zimmer has one year under his belt, playing for Jacksonville last season. Like DeCicco, Watts and Zimmer have a long climb ahead of them, but with so much unproven talent...the players ahead of them could prove to be not what we thought they were. And if they aren't who we thought they were, like Denny says, we sure as hell aren't gonna crown their ass, are we? And that might give Watts, Zimmer, and DeCicco a shot to leapfrog on to the final roster.
Six linebackers seems to be the industry standard, but again, not knowing what Zimmer has or exactly wants his defense to look like, it could go up or down, based on versatility and roles expected of players. So with that in mind, if you make me pick I'll take Greenway, Barr, Hodges, Mauti, Cole, and Brinkley as the top guys, with Dean and Watts pushing hard if any one of those other guys falters.