It appears that the Minnesota Vikings are building a very solid defense under Mike Zimmer. However, while the defensive line appears to be coming along nicely and the secondary has shown marked improvement, the linebacker corps appears to need a little bit of work. It should be a unit that the Vikings are focusing on, but all is not lost at the position.
We'll start with the bad, because. . .well, I want to get it out of the way. And the "bad" at the linebacker position for the Vikings is a guy that has been a big part of this team for a decade in Chad Greenway. Greenway has had two consecutive years of sub-par play at outside linebacker, and is due to make a little more than seven million in 2015. Over the past couple of seasons, Greenway has been bad against the run and the pass, and appears to be losing more steps every season.
I know that Greenway has had some very good years in Minnesota, and the team and Greenway have both expressed interest in keeping their relationship going. But, to be as blunt as possible, this team can't go into 2015 with Chad Greenway starting at outside linebacker. Not "shouldn't," but "can't." This defense has too much going for it so far to go into battle next season with a weak spot as glaring as Greenway as a regular part of it. If Greenway does come back to Minnesota, it's going to be at a greatly reduced salary and, hopefully, a greatly reduced role. It still wouldn't surprise me, however, to see the team release him outright.
But, as I said, it isn't all gloom and doom for the linebacker corps, as they found themselves a huge bright spot last year in first-round draft pick Anthony Barr. Barr, who has only been playing the linebacker position for three years (counting last season) after starting his UCLA career as a running back, is incredibly athletic. When the Vikings drafted him last year, it was thought that the Vikings were going to use his athletic ability more in a pass-rushing role than anything else, but the Vikings threw him into the deep end at the linebacker position, and he responded fairly well. He had some lapses in coverage, but as he gets more comfortable in the scheme, those should decrease significantly. Barr had his rookie season cut short by a knee injury, but he should be more than ready to go for his sophomore campaign.
The middle linebacker spot, when the Vikings used it, was manned by the returning Jasper Brinkley. After a one-year vacation to the Arizona desert, Brinkley came back to Minnesota and provided what he always has. . .solid run support while not being very good in pass coverage. (I'm sure the same people that argue this every time I say it, despite it being 100% accurate, will continue to argue it. They're wrong. Thank you.) On defense, the Vikings played nickel about 50% of the time last season, and Brinkley came off of the field in those situations. Still, if the Vikings want a "thumper" at middle linebacker that comes at a decent price, they could probably do worse than Brinkley.
Next, we have the guy that should be replacing Greenway at one outside linebacker spot, and probably should have done so already, in Gerald Hodges. Hodges got plenty of attention for his pick-six on the first play of the game against the New York Jets, but he had a solid season outside of that as well. He stepped in for Greenway while he was injured, and was solid in relief duty as well. With the way the roster sits right now, Hodges should be a starter at outside linebacker and be on the field with Barr in nickel situations. I'm sure that Mike Zimmer sees that at this point, regardless of the overtures that have been made to Greenway thus far.
Since his pre-season double pick-six game against the Buffalo Bills as a rookie, Audie Cole. . .or, as we refer to him, OMG AUDIE COLE. . .has been a bit of a cult hero in Minnesota. He hasn't gotten a lot of snaps on defense for reasons that I'm not terribly sure of, but he finished the 2014 season with a whale of a game against the Chicago Bears. Cole has enough versatility to play either the middle or the outside at the linebacker spot, and if Brinkley departs he could see a lot more time in the middle. I don't think he'd displace Barr or Hodges in passing situations, but he should get an opportunity to further impress the coaching staff.
Speaking of guys with a bit of a cult following, we come to Michael Mauti. A seventh-round pick of the Vikings a few years back, he went into last season healthy after dealing with numerous knee issues in college. His season was cut short by injuries again, and he only played one snap on defense. However, he did make a bit of an impact on special teams. Just ask Tampa Bay returner Trindon Holliday. If he remembers, I mean.
Last year's other rookie linebacker, Brandon Watts, had a bit of a disappointing season in his first year. He took some flack from Mike Zimmer during the pre-season for having to sit with injuries and spent much of the year inactive. He then got an opportunity to play on the defensive side in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins. . .and promptly got hurt after six snaps. The Vikings seem to like the athletic ability that Watts brings to the table, but as Zimmer pointed out last pre-season, you can't make the club in the tub. Watts is going to have to show what he can do in order to stick in 2015.
Unfortunately, if the Vikings are looking for linebacker help in the free agent market, they're probably going to be disappointed. There were thoughts that the Vikings might entertain a reunion between Zimmer and his former middle linebacker, Ray Maualaga, but the Cincinnati Bengals re-signed him the other day. The team was rumored to be connected to David Harris as well, but he re-signed with the New York Jets on Friday afternoon. The next best player might be former Buffalo Bills' linebacker Brandon Spikes, but the odds are pretty good that he's not going to come cheap. Rolando McClain of the Dallas Cowboys is in the same boat, though McClain might come cheaper because. . .well, because I'm pretty sure he's insane.
The 2015 NFL Draft is probably going to be the best source of help for the Vikings at the linebacker position. The debate over Shaq Thompson of Washington will go on until the season starts. . .is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? The Vikings have apparently talked to him about taking a linebacker spot, but he seems like the kind of player that could flex between both spots and could really do unique things for someone like Zimmer. Some other names the Vikings could look to grab at the position include Barr's former teammate, Eric Kendricks of UCLA, TCU's Paul Dawson (who has some significant off-field issues to consider), Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney, and Denzel Perryman from "The U."
Yes, the Vikings still have some building to do at the linebacker position, but there are plenty of signs of life so far. With another year to get better, we'll probably see some significant growth at the position in 2015.