Hey, did I say I'd get back to the look-aheads on Wednesday? Oops. The why it didn't happen isn't important, and really. . .you don't care anyway. On to the linebacker corps!
How They Started Last Year: Anthony Barr (starter), Jasper Brinkley (starter), Chad Greenway (starter), Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts
How They Finished Last Year: Cole (starter), Brinkley (starter), Hodges (starter), Greenway, Watts, Josh Kaddu (Barr and Mauti on IR)
How They Enter Training Camp: Barr (starter), Eric Kendricks (starter?), Greenway (starter?), Hodges, Cole, Mauti, Kaddu, Watts, Casey Matthews, Brian Peters, Edmond Robinson
A couple of seasons ago, the linebacker situation for the Minnesota Vikings could generously be described as a "dumpster fire." Now, thanks to an infusion of young talent, the unit has really turned itself around.
We'll start in the middle, where Jasper Brinkley is gone after his second tour with the Vikings. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys in the offseason, and left a bit of a hole at the middle linebacker spot. At this point, I have to believe that said hole is going to be filled by second-round pick Eric Kendricks. Kendricks was considered by many to be the best inside linebacker prospect in the draft, and his falling to #45 overall was a bit of a surprise. He may be a little undersized for the position, but he was always around the football in college, and I believe that not only will he end up being the starter at middle linebacker, but he'll also be one of the linebackers that stays in the field in sub-packages.
One of the guys that Kendricks will be starting next to is his old college teammate, Anthony Barr. Barr had played himself into the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation last season (inasmuch as anybody not named Aaron Donald could have, anyway), and though he had his issues at times, he showed why the Vikings thought he was worth investing a #9 overall selection in. The Vikings threw a lot at Barr in his rookie season, much like they're doing to cornerback Trae Waynes now, and it appears to have paid dividends. It's going to be exciting to see Barr get back on the field after his rookie season got curtailed by a knee injury.
The other linebacker spot in the base defense is the source of a lot of debate. The team did restructure Chad Greenway's deal this offseason, bringing him back for a tenth season in purple. However, his play has fallen off a bit in recent years, and the Vikings have two young linebackers ready to step in when needed in Gerald Hodges and OMG AUDIE COLE. Hodges got a couple of starts in place of both Barr and Greenway in 2014, and played very well for the most part. He was very highly graded by Pro Football Focus, and had one of the more exciting plays of the Vikings' 2014 season. Cole got an opportunity to start the season finale against the Chicago Bears, and was all over the field making tackles and defending passes.
With the Vikings playing nickel on defense about 50% of the time, whoever wins the third linebacker spot beside Barr and (presumably) Kendricks won't see a whole lot of time. Mike Zimmer does love him some Chad Greenway, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him lining up at his familiar spot once again. Should he get injured or continue to decline, however, the Vikings have some very talented options behind him at the position. Cole could also figure into the mix at middle linebacker, but again, I'd be surprised if anyone but Kendricks was in the middle of the Vikings' defense when they take the field in Week 1.
Michael Mauti has been a fan favorite among the purple faithful since he's been drafted. He's had problems getting on the field in the base defense, but he's done some solid work on special teams. And, hey, it gives me an excuse to post this Vine again.
Mauti has overcome a lot to stick with the Vikings, but now it's getting to be make or break time for him. The linebacker spot isn't the wasteland it was when he first got to Minnesota, and he's going to have to put together a nice camp. His special teams prowess will likely keep him around, but if he's not careful, someone could wind up snagging his spot.
The Vikings didn't get a whole lot out of rookie Brandon Watts in 2014. The team likes his athleticism, but athleticism doesn't do much if you can't stay healthy. Watts got some snaps on defense towards the end of last season and didn't leave much of an impression. He's going to have a fight on his hands to make the squad. The same can be said for Josh Kaddu, who spent most of last season on the practice squad before getting promoted towards the end of the year.
The team used their final pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Edmond Robinson, a linebacker out of Newberry College. To be completely honest, I didn't know a whole lot about Robinson when the pick was made. . .and I still don't know a whole heck of a lot about him. I don't think his name was even mentioned in the coverage of offseason workouts anywhere.
Brian Peters comes to the team by way of the Canadian Football League, where he spent a few seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He's already 27 years old, so there might not be a lot of room for development where he's concerned. He played some safety in college, which could help him out a bit.
To show how the free agency period went for the Vikings, one of their biggest signings was Casey Matthews. Yeah. He's not nearly as talented as his brother Clay, though he does have much better hair (which is damning with faint praise, to say the least). He came as a relatively cheap signing, so he's no lock to make the roster or anything like that. There's no reason to think he'll be more than a reserve/special teamer if he does.
The linebacker position, which was a reason to cringe as recently as a couple of years ago, is now really starting to turn itself around. Led by the two former teammates from UCLA, there's no reason to avert your eyes when the Vikings drop linebackers into coverage or when runners get to the second level of the defense. The battle for the third linebacker spot will be an interesting one to watch during camp, as will who the team keeps as a sixth linebacker, if they keep one at all. At this point, I have to think that Barr, Kendricks, Cole, Hodges, and Greenway are locks (though I guess a Greenway cut wouldn't be that surprising).
Camp starts tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen! We'll be back with a look at the defensive backfield before things get underway.