Photo courtesy of vikings.com

What? Not a Adrian Peterson story?

When Mike Zimmer took the helm of the Vikings, there was little doubt that we’d see high turnover on both sides of the ball. Being the defensive minded coach that he is, Zimmer wasted no time bringing in new talent on defense.

Since joining the Vikings, Zimmer has brought in 6 new major contributors (Barr, Johnson, Joseph, Waynes, Munnerlyn, Kendricks) to the defense.

With so many new faces donning horns for the first time, there are unanswered questions about who will fill what roll for the team in 2015, especially at linebacker.

Viewed as a major weakness for the team two years ago, Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman have done a nice job restocking the depth chart at the positions, allowing the team to have the luxury of having some flexibility.

The flexibility is a major facet of Zimmer’s defense, as he is widely known to move players around frequently. There were times last year, where then rookie linebacker Anthony Barr would swap with defensive end Brian Robison. Barr, is a pure talent at rushing the passer, Robison is so athletically gifted, you can trust him in coverage. The variety and unique defensive sets are what give Zimmer and the Vikings an advantage against most offenses.

Moving through OTAs, I wanted to take a look at who the Vikings currently have under contract and how they may potentially fit the defense.

Anthony Barr

The second year man from UCLA was a bright spot for the Vikings defense last year and burst onto the national scene with his strip, recovery and touchdown of a fumble in overtime vs. Tampa Bay. Barr showed the ability to learn the defense quickly and earned the trust of Zimmer and coaches when he was given the green dot – or the responsibility of calling the defense in the huddle. That is a lot to ask of a rookie linebacker and although Barr certainly had areas to improve, he lived up to expectations.

Barr will need to continue to get stronger and better in coverage, but most rookie linebackers do. I’ll be interested to see if Barr can stay healthy for a full 16 game schedule after seemingly hitting a rookie wall midway through last year.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings used Barr even more creatively this year, trusting his knowledge of the defense more. On top of that, with the current depth at defensive end also an unknown, Barr could be used as a spot rusher on 3rd down situations.

Status: Starting OLB, Occasional DE

 

Chad Greenway

The longest tenured defensive Viking, Greenway is well into the twilight of his career. The Vikings still believe he has another year left, however, as they found a way to renegotiate his contract his offseason to keep him in purple for the entirety of his career.

Greenway doesn’t have the speed or coverage abilities that he has had in the past, but I project him as a starter on defense for 2015. When renegotiating his contract, Greenway stated his desire to be a 3 down linebacker. It’s not difficult to see why Greenway views himself as a 3 down defender, but I do think his deceasing coverage abilities make him a liability. Do you remember the 4th & 16 in Buffalo last year? I’ll save us the pain of posting it here, but Greenway’s age got the best of him on that play and that conversion cost the Vikings the game.

Status: Starting OLB

 

Gerald Hodges

Entering his 3rd year out of Penn State, Hodges played well when Greenway went down with an injury last year. So well that Hodges ranked 9th overall in profootballfocus.com grades of 4-3 OLB.

Hodges is equally solid in both coverage and run defense and will serve as strong competition for Greenway at OLB. Consistently around the football, Hodges tallied 49 tackles in 495 snaps last year. To add some perspective, Barr had 55 in 793 and Greenway 58 in 724. Tackles aren’t a tell all stat, but I do think it provides some perspective on Hodges nose for the ball.

Hodges is probably on the cusp of a starting talent at linebacker, but I think he’ll have to wait another year. He will surely push Greenway during training camp, hopefully enough to help Chad elevate his game for 1 final season.

Status: #3 OLB who will get plenty of opportunities

 

Eric Kendricks

Rick Spielman has a knack for drafting multiple players from the same schools so it should be no surprise that the Vikings invested another high draft pick in a UCLA linebacker. Kendricks is an immediate upgrade at middle linebacker and was viewed by many as the top coverage linebacker in the draft.

With last year’s stopgap, Jasper Brinkley, leaving via free agency, the Vikings needed to fill the hole in the middle of the linebacker corps badly and Kendricks fulfills that need.

It will be interesting to see what the Vikings do with Kendricks on 3rd down. He might not know the defense as well as Greenway does at this point, but I wouldn’t doubt if his coverage skills are better at this point. Either way, Kendricks will fill in nicely at middle linebacker as a 2 down player if nothing else this year and I suspect he’ll become a regular stalwart on the Vikings defense for years to come.

I believe Zimmer has said he believes there is potential for Kendricks to move to OLB, but if Hodges continues to develop like I believe he is, I think Kendricks’ long term spot is MLB.

Status: Starting MLB

 

Audie Cole
Cole is a bit of an enigma. The knock on Cole is that he is too small to be an everyday middle linebacker at the NFL level, yet, when given his opportunities, Cole continues to stockpile impressive numbers and is seemingly always around to make big plays.

To most fans, this would be enough to name him the starting middle linebacker, but I don’t believe the Vikings would have used a 2nd rounder on Kendricks if they thought the same thing. There must be more to the story.

Nonetheless, Cole is a good depth option for the team and will be a significant special teams contributor in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some opportunity in training camp to play with 1s to see what he can do for the defense, but I think his time to shine stops there.

Status: #2 MLB and strong special teams contributor.

 

Michael Mauti
If you hang around Vikings twitter enough, it wouldn’t take long to realize there is a very strong underground Michael Mauti fan club.

Mauti was a highly touted linebacker from Penn State before injuries slowed his game down significantly and I’m not sure he’ll ever overcome those lingering issues. Minus the injury history, Mauti would be a very good linebacker at the NFL level, but at this point, he’s nothing more than a special teams contributor with the strong potential that he might be a cut during training camp.

Status: Special teams, fighting to make the final roster

 

Casey Matthews
The brother of Green Bay Packers stand out Clay Matthews, Casey Matthews joined the Vikings via free agency after spending the last 4 years with the Philadelphia Eagles.

What is most notable and concerning to me is that Matthews played at Oregon during college and the head coach of the Eagles, Chip Kelly has spent the entire offseason acquiring former Oregon Ducks and let Matthews walk in free agency.

Is there value that Matthews provides? We’ll have to see, but he saw 3 snaps he started 11 games with the Eagles last year at inside linebacker of a 3-4 defense and I think he’s nothing more than a camp body at this point.

Status: Likely training camp cut

 

Brandon Watts
A late round draft pick in 2014, Watts saw very limited action last year which was likely due to injuries at the position.

I’m not counting Watts out of the equation as a depth option for the Vikings, but he has the majority of the roster stacked against him at this point.

Watts will earn his roster spot by playing well on special teams, where he’ll have his biggest impact.

Status: Special teams

 

Edmond Robinson

Robinson was the most recent late round draft pick of the Vikings to fit the “small time college with big time potential” bill.

As it is with all late round draft picks, the initial reaction is that the Vikings found a diamond in the rough with Robinson, who can make an impact once he adjusts to the NFL level.

I’m not saying that is wrong, but it’s obvious that Robinson will have his work cut out for him. Robinson will have to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, like any rookie, but his adjustment will likely be bigger due to the fact he played at a smaller school.

At this point, I think Robinson turns out to be a practice squad member as he continues to develop into a potential NFL linebacker.

Status: Practice squad, developmental player

*****

As we move closer and closer to the official start of training camp, I like what I see from the depth at linebacker for the defense. A lot of my confidence, however, is contingent on Barr’s continued development and how quickly Kendricks can adapt to the NFL game.

I think the team does have strong depth with both Hodges and Cole being two players who can step in and contribute if needed. With how badly injuries impacted the team last year, the depth the team carries at several positions, let alone linebacker, might be the key to success. Thankfully the team will likely carry 5 linebackers who we can trust to perform when called on. That kind of confidence on your role type of players will be tremendous as the wear and tear of the season mounts.