Hello everybody! Before I start this article, I'd just like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Jackson McIntire and I live in Los Angeles, California. For the last few years I have been a writer for The Viking Age. I have also guest written for Vikings Territory, and have been featured on Andy Carlson's Purple FTW! Podcast. I'm a die hard Viking fan and tend to take the "Realistic" approach to things rather than the "Supportive" approach. For example, Chad Greenway sucks and Trae Waynes has stiff hips. Get it? Cool. While the majority of my posts in the past have focused on the NFL Draft, I plan on changing that up a bit. I am extremely excited to begin writing for the Daily Norseman and for those of you unfamiliar with my work, I hope to make a good impression on each of you. You can follow me on twitter @jackmack28. A side note: I try my best to reply to comments, so be sure to leave your thoughts below!
When taking a look at the Vikings' depth chart, it is very evident that linebacker is an area that needs to be resolved. A large part of a defense (And offense, for that matter) isn't just finding good players, it is finding good players that play together as a single unit and feed off of each other's skills. For example, take a look at Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle. While they are different players, they both profile under an "aggressive" identity that helps set the tone for the rest of the defense. They are both athletic safeties with plus ball skills who love to lay big hits. While Thomas is the better cover safety while Chancellor is the better run defender/intimidator. As evident in any Seattle game, this combination goes together like peanut butter and jelly as the two's chemistry is undeniable. This type of combination is the same type that the Vikings should be looking for when piecing together their linebacker rotation. Lets start with breaking down the six Vikings' linebackers that actually have a legitimate chance at earning a role on defense.
Barr's starting spot as the "Sam" linebacker is set in stone. However, there will be times where Barr plays from the defensive end spot, which will open up some part-time playing time for another linebacker. Barr is an extremely athletic linebacker who excels at rushing the passer and has a very high ceiling as an all-around linebacker. While he played the run well this past year, he struggled mightily with missed tackles. Another less-documented flaw that I noticed in his game was his lack of instincts in coverage. He often times appeared to have little understanding of what to do in zone coverage, but that's what you'd expect from a rookie who had only played defense for 2 years, at a different position. In time, Barr should develop instincts in coverage and become a linebacker who excels in all phases of the game.
A former teammate of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks enters the NFL as UCLA's all time leading tackler. Boasting great instincts, coverage skills, athleticism, and run defending skills, Kendricks is set to become the Vikings' starting "Mike" or "Will" linebacker right out of the gates. While his spot isn't guaranteed, it's his to lose. As the 45th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Kendricks was a tremendous value pick, as he was my 14th rated player in the entire draft.
How long will it be before coaches realize what fans realized a long time ago? Chad Greenway is done. He no longer possesses the speed, quickness, or athleticism to play in coverage and gets tossed around like a rag doll in run defense. Old and ineffective, Greenway's sole contribution to the team comes in the form of veteran leadership and the role of "Coach on the Field" which carries less weight if you can't play football anymore.
Possibly the best Viking that nobody is talking about, Hodges brings an intriguing skill-set to the table. A former safety, Hodges plays with speed, range, aggression, and a good amount of athleticism. As a plus coverage and run defender, Hodges would complement the rest of the Vikings' linebacker core exceptionally. He appears to be the ideal fit next to Kendricks and Barr, which would give the Vikings one of the most athletic linebacker units in the NFL.
You just have to love Audie Cole. After winning over every Viking fan's heart with back-to-back pick six's in a preseason game a couple years back, Cole has shined in just about every opportunity he has been given, although there haven't been too many of them. After playing one of the best games from a linebacker I have ever seen to close out the season against the Bears in the 2014-15 season, Cole is entering the offseason with his eyes on a starting position. Despite being labeled as having "stiff hips" coming out of college, Cole has been able to play very well in coverage while also holding his own against the run. While Hodges received more playing time and thus was able to distinguish himself a bit more, don't be surprised if high praise for Cole starts to become a common theme in Mankato.
Initially a "Low risk, high reward" pick in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Mauti has made some splash plays on special teams but has yet to carve out a role for himself on defense. A good athlete who plays with a passionate flare and good speed, Mauti, like Cole, will enter camp with his eyes on becoming a starter. While Mauti was a good all-around player at Penn State, Mauti doesn't have enough tape at the pro level to break down his game. Of the six linebackers, Mauti is the biggest long shot to come away with a starting gig, but crazier things have happened.
So, the Vikings have one guaranteed starting linebacker, one rookie who will probably start, one washed up player who has the coaches in his corner, a proven backup who should probably be starting, an overachieving backup who has earned the chance to compete, and a guy with the tools and leadership qualities to be an NFL starting linebacker but is on the outside looking in. While the most likely starters at this point are Barr, Kendricks, and Greenway, this post is dedicated to finding the best linebacker combination, rather than the most likely outcome. It's safe to assume that as of right now with the knowledge that we have, Barr and Kendricks are the top two linebackers on the team. The goal then going forward will be to find a third linebacker to complement them, as well as a primary backup linebacker capable of playing any linebacker position when called upon.
Greenway vs Hodges vs Cole vs Mauti
Lets quickly trim this down to a two-way battle. Greenway is outclassed in every facet of the game outside of leadership. While coaches will certainly stand in his corner as long as they possibly can, from a practical standpoint Greenway brings absolutely nothing to the table from an on-field play perspective and can safely be removed from the discussion. While Mauti certainly has a lot of fight in him, he hasn't had enough playing time to make a case for being the third starting linebacker. This leaves us with just two players left over, Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole.
Although Hodges has had more opportunities to play, both he and Cole have proven themselves be worthy of a starting role in the NFL. While both play the run and pass well, they are very different players. Hodges uses his athleticism to avoid blockers and fly around the field making plays, while Cole uses his instincts and good play-diagnosing ability to position himself to make a play. This could be a story to watch, as Zimmer apparently gets annoyed by Hodges' tendency to "freelance" and may find Cole's more fundamentally sound style of play more appealing.
In determining the best fit, we need to take a look at the rest of the Vikings defense. This offseason, the Vikings' front office made it an obvious objective to become faster on the defensive side of the ball. Guys like Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and even free agent add Taylor Mays all bring elite speed for their position to the team. Add in the fact that the defense already boasts athletic and fast players such as Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Harrison Smith and Captain Munnerlyn and it's clear that the Vikings' defense is built around a core of athletic and speedy young play-makers. If one had to describe Gerald Hodges as a player in a few words based on what we have seen, "Athletic and speedy young play-maker" would probably be their answer. Based on the current defensive identity, it appears clear that Gerald Hodges is a perfect piece to the puzzle. While Hodges would likely be the linebacker to come off the field in nickel situations, there will be times where Barr puts his hand in the dirt and rushes the passer. In these situations, Hodges will be able to step in and play well against the pass.
While Hodges appears to be the better fit as a starter, in a world where only the best players play, Cole would still have a role. Due to his innate ability to diagnose plays and position himself accordingly, he should be able to play any linebacker position and do a fine job. This position is very valuable, as it is rare that all three starting linebackers start 16 games a season. In addition to injury fill-ins, players get tired and on long drives sometimes need to take a few plays off. Having a backup of Cole's caliber helps ease the drop-off and improves the defense as a whole.
While I tremendously respect Zimmer's coaching ability, it seems every coach has a certain amount of loyalty to veterans thus making Greenway the likely starter. The problem with this is that this decision will likely hold the Vikings defensive unit back as a whole, and will make it harder to make a significant amount of progress in run defense, which was a major problem last season. In a perfect world, Zimmer would choose to start the best players. Hopefully Hodges and Cole will do enough in camp to distinguish themselves as the clear-cut top choices. Lets hope for the best.
Thank you all for reading, don't forget to leave your thoughts below, and as mentioned in the intro you can follow me on twitter @jackmack28.