Since he arrived in Minnesota, head coach Mike Zimmer has transformed the Vikings defense from laughingstock to nationally regarded as one of the best in the NFL.
Much of this is due to the talent he has acquired at linebacker.
With the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft, Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman selected athletic freak Anthony Barr out of UCLA. In just three seasons, Barr has already been selected to two Pro Bowls.
A year later, the Vikings used a second round pick on Barr’s former UCLA teammate, Eric Kendricks. While Kendricks doesn’t have a Pro Bowl appearance to his name, he played on par or better than several Pro Bowl selections in 2016.
Chad Greenway‘s retirement after an illustrious career in purple and gold leaves behind a hole at the starting weak linebacker spot. The battle for that starting gig will likely headline the linebackers during the last Vikings training camp in Mankato.
TRAINING CAMP INVITES
|Player Name||Years of Experience||College Attended||Note|
|Anthony Barr||3||UCLA||2x Pro Bowler|
|Eric Kendricks||2||UCLA||'15 2nd Round Pick|
|Emmanuel Lamur||5||Kansas State||13 starts in '14 w/ CIN|
|Edmond Robinson||2||Newberry||'15 7th Round Pick|
|Kentrell Brothers||1||Missouri||'16 5th Round Pick|
|Ben Gedeon||0||Michigan||'17 4th Round Pick|
|Elijah Lee||0||Kansas State||'17 7th Round Pick|
|Eric Wilson||0||Cincinnati||'17 UDFA|
|Shaan Washington||0||Texas A&M||UDFA, Placed on PUP|
Minnesota’s defense boasts one of the best young linebacker duos in Barr and Kendricks. Each has a different skill set from each other, but both have exhibited elite potential. Barr’s large frame, freakish athleticism and strong pass rushing prowess helped him vault up the league-wide linebacker ranks in 2015 before taking a step back in 2016. Meanwhile, Kendricks’ tremendous instincts and knack for the big play have raised eyebrows throughout the NFL.
Greenway’s retirement opens an opportunity for one veteran and several young players to earn a starting role. However, this starting gig likely won’t carry the same weight as a typical starting linebacker job in the NFL.
Mike Zimmer’s defense has lined up in a nickel package for roughly 70 percent of snaps since he took over as head coach three years ago. Since the nickel defense only includes two linebackers, the third one — which has mostly been Greenway the past couple of years — usually receives a much smaller amount of snaps than Barr or Kendricks.
Nonetheless, a handful of players with little to no NFL experience has a real shot at earning a starting job for one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Anthony Barr: Sure, he took a step back in 2016. But Barr still has elite potential and is only two years removed from being Pro Football Focus’s highest rated outside linebacker. He has blazing speed and acceleration for the linebacker position, despite also having one of the largest frames at the position.
Barr has a few technical things he needs to clean up moving into 2017 — namely, tackling and recognition in coverage — but it would be a shocking development if he didn’t rebound on some level in 2017 and trend back upwards toward his 2015 performance.
Eric Kendricks: The 2016 season provided yet another solid step forward in the development of Kendricks. His instincts and recognition skills are light years ahead of where linebackers are supposed to be at this stage of his career. Additionally, Kendricks improved his tackling efficiency and displayed an extra boost when shooting through gaps, allowing him to make several tackles-for-loss that most linebackers couldn’t.
Kendricks’ instincts and burst sometimes lead to over-aggressiveness, which came back to bite him a few times in 2016. But overall, Kendricks’ career arc suggests a Pro Bowl season is in front of the third-year stud.
Ben Gedeon: The fourth-round pick was the centerpiece of Michigan’s elite defense in 2016, and some of those intangibles can carry over into the NFL. He has a devastating mentality and strong leadership qualities as well. On the field, Gedeon is already one of the most consistent tackles among all Vikings linebackers — which should open up a special teams spot for him, at the very least.
Gedeon’s range and speed are a legitimate concern. His high athletic testing numbers didn’t quite match what he showed on tape. Plus, Gedeon appears to be a two-down linebacker only in his case for the starting job, unless he shows coverage skills that were absent in his college career.
Edmond Robinson: Robinson’s skill set provides the best option as a backup to either Barr or Kendricks. Robinson is another athletic freak with tremendous length, like Barr, who has the coverage ability and experience to step into the nickel package should Barr or Kendricks sustain an injury.
However, Robinson’s weaknesses are evident in the run game. He struggles to shoot through gaps and often gets swept out of plays altogether, despite the size and athleticism.
Emmanuel Lamur: No, Lamur is not a lock to make the team. His performance in Minnesota has left much to be desired, and he does not carry any dead cap with him in 2017 should the Vikings decide to cut him. He will be given a chance to start due to his experience, but he will have to improve his recognition and coverage skills if he wants to keep a roster spot, let alone a starting job.
Kentrell Brothers: Unfortunately, a special teams role might be Brothers’ ceiling in the NFL. While he has all the cerebral tools to play the position at a high level, he just doesn’t have the size or athleticism for it. Do the Vikings want to keep a guy on the roster that has those limitations if thrust into a starting role due to other injuries?
Elijah Lee: The seventh-round pick was one of the fan bases favorite picks in the 2017 draft. The Kansas State product is another player in the similar mold of Robinson — he has the size, range, athleticism and coverage ability. But his work as a run stopper could limit his chances at a roster spot. If he can prove to be serviceable as a run stopper, he could contend for that starting role.
Eric Wilson: Wilson’s potential is sky high, but he is also a highly probably cut. His athletic measurables and tackling production at Cincinnati have earned him a preseason roster spot. He now must show that he has some technique to go with the elite athleticism. If he picks up the defensive scheme and shows consistent technique, he very well could come away with a roster spot.
Shaan Washington: Washington’s placement on the PUP list have all but eliminated his chances, if he had any in the first place. He has good instincts, but he does not have the speed necessary to play linebacker in the NFL.
BATTLE TO WATCH
Emmanuel Lamur v. Edmond Robinson v. Ben Gedeon v. Elijah Lee
The battle to watch isn’t necessarily a secret. The weak linebacker starting spot is up for grabs, and it’s about as wide open of a competition you see in the NFL. Gedeon’s fit on the outside may be an issue, but the possibility of moving Kendricks outside in base defense to allow Gedeon to slide into the middle could give him a chance.
Lamur will likely see the first team reps in base defense to begin camp, but Robinson should steal those reps quickly. Lamur and Robinson remain the favorites, with rookies Gedeon and Lee also taking along behind (for now).
One thing to keep in mind is Minnesota’s situational use of base defense. Zimmer employs the base 4-3 look almost exclusively against run personnel, so it would make sense if the linebacker who takes Greenway’s place had some ability as a run defender — which would give Gedeon a boost.
|Strong Linebacker||Middle Linebacker||Weak Linebacker|
|Anthony Barr||Eric Kendricks||Edmond Robinson|
|Elijah Lee||Ben Gedeon||Eric Wilson|