These Opportunities Come Once in a Lifetime

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Well, not at this exact moment — but very soon.

Teams around the National Football League are scheduling their final handful of meetings and workouts with prospects, as the draft is just a mere three weeks away. The opportunity every team and NFL fans have been waiting for — the chance to fill in glaring roster holes with eager young talent.

The Minnesota Vikings are no different in that they are likely not only as excited about the upcoming draft as fans are, but they also possess multiple roster holes that, if adequately filled in, could take this team to new heights. It is no secret that Minnesota will enter the draft with a rather notable offensive line issue — despite the team’s signings of offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers.

Starting defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd’s career-threatening nerve issue has also caused a buzz within Vikings circles, as 3-technique quickly becomes a question mark if, in fact, Floyd’s career is over. Both Minnesota’s interior offensive line and defensive tackle groups will likely receive an upgrade at some point, but another glaring concern on defense remains — linebacker.

The Vikings lost veteran leader Chad Greenway to retirement, which instantly created a tangible void on the team’s 53-man roster, but the position was an issue before No. 52 announced the end of his career. Minnesota experienced issues in coverage over the middle of the field throughout its rollercoaster 2016 campaign, many of which were a result of ineffective linebacker play.

Tight ends dominated the Vikings week in and week out, as Anthony Barr took a significant step back in his third professional season. But it wasn’t until the home stretch of the year that Minnesota’s defensive deficiencies were truly exploited. Against the Indianapolis Colts, coach Mike Zimmer was forced to base in a 4-3-4 alignment, as opposed to his dominant 4-2-5 nickel package.

Barr’s struggles covering running backs out of the backfield and tight end crossing routes made him a target for opposing offensive coordinators, but Indianapolis wasn’t interested in messing with Barr — Colts offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was after Minnesota’s greatest coverage weakness, Greenway.

The recently retired veteran spent the majority of his final season on the sideline due to regression as a result of his relatively advanced age. But Chudzinski forced him and Zimmer’s base 4-3 unit onto the field with regularity, attacking Greenway all over the gridiron with tight end and former Miami Hurricanes basketball player Erik Swoope.

As for the results … well, the game was a disaster; Minnesota had all but lost by the end of the first quarter. The Colts went on to eliminate the Vikings from the postseason with a 34-6 blowout win.

Linebacker coverage is a major issue for the Vikings, but without a first-round pick and dire needs at two other positions; it seems unlikely that Minnesota will be able to uncover a quality fix for each area of concern. With big names such as Ohio State’s Pat Elflein and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell headlining the team’s list of Top-30 visits at offensive guard/center and defensive tackle, as well as a host of highly-touted running backs prospects — notably Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara — the Vikings appear set to draft a position other than linebacker with the No. 48 overall pick.

Minnesota also owns two picks in the third round (Nos. 79 and 86), and it remains a realistic possibility it will spend at least one on a linebacker upgrade — Louisiana State’s Duke Riley, for example.

However, it is always important to have a competitive backup plan — as Rick Spielman and the Vikings learned the hard way last August — and soon-to-be second-year linebacker Kentrell Brothers possesses the unteachable instincts and fundamental technique to honorably fulfill this role (and possibly more).

But Brothers’ pedestrian athletic toolset suggests he has already reached his professional ceiling as a difference-maker on special teams … or has he?

Brothers entered last season’s draft following an excellent career with the Missouri Tigers.

He played very little as a true freshman (14 tackles), but the former Tigers linebacker saw his role increase significantly as a sophomore (70 tackles) before establishing himself as the centerpiece of Missouri’s defense as a junior (121 tackles) and producing a year to remember as a senior (152 tackles).

Despite producing a fantastic 14-game season in his final year with Missouri, Brothers generated very little early-round hype. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, his frame won’t do him any favors, as he is still slightly undersized, but his average height-to-weight ratio should not garner much negative attention.

The reason Brothers’ stock had been falling both rapidly and consistently was due to scouts recognizing his testing weaknesses. Upon confirming the scouts’ suspicions regarding his borderline NFL-caliber athleticism, the Missouri product was almost completely overlooked. With exception to strong performances in the 20-yard shuttle (4.11 seconds) and 3-cone drill (6.99 seconds), Brothers had become the poster child for “not quite athletic to make it,” which seemed a little unfair to judge based on a couple lousy combine test results.

Minnesota ultimately ended the Missouri linebacker’s draft slide by tapping him in the 5th round at No. 160 overall. Now, one year removed from a very successful 10-game season on special teams, there is starting linebacker spot ripe for the picking following Emmanuel Lamur’s mediocre first impression with the Vikings.

Lamur, who played 38 snaps on defense and 16 games on special teams, recorded 13 combined tackles and five solo tackles in his first season with the Vikings. Brothers, on the other hand, recorded 1 defensive snap and made nine combined tackles (all solos) in 10 active games as a rookie. Although Lamur dwarfs Brothers in straight-line speed (4.63 40-yard dash), he failed to test higher in the 3-cone drill (7.30 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.28 seconds).

The former Cincinnati Bengal certainly possesses a better frame and a more well-rounded skill set, but Brothers is a much better “linebacker” — fundamental tackling, incredible instincts, cerebral, great angles to the football, slides off defenders with ease and hard-nosed leadership. Given his lack of defensive snaps, the best way to see these skills in action is on special teams tape.

Brothers (No. 40), in the above kick return, shows instincts, quick decision-making and cerebral thought weaving his way through the Jacksonville Jaguars return team before spotting an open hole, making one hard cut to create a perfect pursuit angle, slipping through a lead blocker and wrapping up the kick returner for a solo tackle.

Special teams can truly only be used to evaluate how he plays downhill against the run or a short pass, but it offers a perfect lens as to what Brothers can bring if used situationally and correctly on defense. As shown above, he is a gritty defender with outstanding intangibles and, upon establishing his path to the ball, the play is all but over as the soon-to-be second-year linebacker is a fundamental tactician as it pertains to finding the ball carrier, determining an angle of pursuit and reaching the spot quickly for a stop.

Different camera angle, same result. Once again, Brothers finds the perfect path to the ball and does not miss his man upon making contact. These skills translate directly to run defense as a 4-3 middle linebacker, as the high concentration of players along the line of scrimmage and typical congestion likely makes bringing down running backs on defense easier than tallying open-field tackles of return men.

These clips, however, do not show Brothers’ coverage ability — or lack thereof. Despite his cerebral linebacking mind and fundamental tackling technique, Brothers’ coverage skills (particularly man-to-man) are very disappointing. It is an area of his game where technique and knowledge cannot make up for a lack of athleticism. As a result, the Missouri product likely cannot be trusted as a three-down linebacker and should be restricted to small zones roughly 6-8 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Under these circumstances, Brothers is still superior to Lamur at playing linebacker, giving him a very a realistic chance to claim a starting gig during training camp. This opening is small, however, and the former Tiger will have to not only consistently drill into the minds of his coaches that he is capable of performing as a two-down run stuffer despite his lack of athletic tools but also potentially beat out a yet-to-be-named rookie as well.

Brothers is the most polished middle linebacker on the roster in terms of technique, which allows Kendricks — who basically has played outside linebacker his entire career in Zimmer’s nickel alignment — to be moved to the outside and allow him to utilize his tremendous coverage skills and open-field playmaking talent.

It may be a long shot, but it is a real shot. And for Brothers, a player who has been doubted as an NFL athlete for over two years now, it could be the only one he gets to play an impact 20-30 snap “starter” role in Zimmer’s 4-3 base package.

No, Brothers doesn’t possess the athleticism necessary to play the role, but he is able to make up for his lack of speed and crisp change-of-direction movements with an extremely high football IQ, unteachable instincts and textbook technique.

And, above all, Brothers should be considered a legitimate contender for middle linebacker snaps in 43 sets — and the time has come for him to prove it.

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Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference; Spider Charts courtesy of Mockdraftable; Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game Pass; Special Teams Tackles courtesy of Kentrell Brothers.