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Camp Battles: The Linebackers

Linebackers coach Fred Pagac and the rest of the Vikings’ staff will have a tough time in camp and preseason trimming this group of linebackers down to the top 7 guys. The 2012 squad had 7 backers on it, so unless the Vikings eliminate the 3rd QB spot to make room for an extra linebacker this year, I think the Vikings will be forced to cut 3 of the 10 linebackers in camp.

At this point the only certainty is that 2012 All-Pro Chad Greenway will be back as the starting strong-side linebacker. The 2006 first round pick from Iowa started all 16 games last year and finished with 148 combined tackles which ranked 3rd in the NFL. Greenway’s leadership will be needed again this year as Pagac will probably rotate the other linebackers in and out as he did last season.

With some degree of certainty I can say that undrafted rookie Nathan Williams has no chance to make the 53 man roster. An ankle injury that required surgery in June has him sidelined on the PUP list which may put the screws to any opportunity show what he can do.

This off-season the Vikings moved Erin Henderson, last year’s starter on the weak side, to the middle linebacker spot. It looks like this move will stick through camp and preseason but I wouldn’t mortgage the farm that he will start all 16 games in the middle. Henderson was the Vikings 7th leading tackler with 50 solo stops last season on the outside. So far in camp Leslie Frazier is encouraged by Henderson’s transition to the middle, and Erin appears hungry to hold on to his new job. Some early camp notes and highlights include a couple big hits from Henderson and some overall solid play.

The top of the depth chart at the weak side position has a bit of a battle brewing. Marvin Mitchell has been taking most of the first team reps in camp as Desmond Bishop attempts to come back after missing the entire 2012 season from a ruptured hamstring. Mitchell has been in the league for 7 years and has 3 career starts. Mitchell is a versatile guy that can play middle or outside. Last year he started in the middle against San Francisco filling in for Erin Henderson when he was out with a concussion. Mitchell has played in 82 games – mostly as a mainstay on special teams – and the Vikings liked him enough to resign him to a one year deal this off-season. However, it is only a matter of time before the starting WLB job is officially handed over to Bishop. Bishop racked up 166 solo tackles in 2 years as a starter for the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and 2011. He brings a smart veteran presence with consistent production and great run stopping ability to the Vikings defense. If Bishop can stay healthy he might find some playing time at middle linebacker before the season is over.

Vikings’ 4th round pick Gerald Hodges was Penn State’s leading tackler last season and was projected to compete as a starter at weak side before the Vikings signed Bishop. Hodges has the physical tools and the upside to be a front runner to make the roster and to work his way into a starting position sometime in the future. But first Hodges will need to show he can play special teams as well as Mitchell or Larry Dean if he wants to move up on the depth chart and see game action in the near future.

Larry Dean is a solid special team’s player and the top back up to Chad Greenway. Dean is a bit undersized at 6’ and 226 lbs but plays with great speed and a nose for the ball. Dean is the all time leading tackler out of Division II Valdosta State. I am seeing reports that Dean is having a good camp and making plays with the second team defense.

Audie Cole and Michael Mauti are both 7th round picks by the Vikings over the last 2 years respectfully. Cole earned a spot on the roster last season with a good camp and preseason. Mauti has all the tools to compete as a starter but 3 knee injuries over his career could hold him back. Both of these fan favorites just might be battling against each other for a final roster spot.

Tyrone McKenzie was our leading tackler in preseason last year and he might also lead the way again this year, but don’t be shocked if a good camp and preseason is not enough to win a roster spot.

Two things you can count on at the linebacker position battles are, A) whomever the Vikings cut will most likely find work on another team’s final roster. And B) the Vikings’ position battle may last well into of the regular season as the linebackers fight for playing time and the coaches search for the most productive rotation.

Strap your helmet on tight, the hitting will be fierce!

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Carl Knowles

Carl Knowles (Contributor) is a former member of the Professional Bowler Association and an avid lifelong Vikings fan. When he is not bowling you can find him on websites and forum pages sharing his creative insight and enthusiasm for the Minnesota Vikings any chance he gets. Carl was a Phoenix Institute of Technology and Purdue University standout who currently enjoys the challenge of being a graphic director in the printing business. You can follow him on twitter @carlknowles_vt.

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  1. Carls,

    Your old pal has really come to enjoy your optimistic writing. No kidding, it’s well done.

    Wouldn’t you agree that if the draft happened today,the Vike would spend the first 7 rounds trying to find linebacker help? Aside from Chad Greenway, this is the weakest bunch of slappies since Freds played middle linebacker in Pop Warner football? The idea that we put Erin Henderstone in the middle and have to sign an injured free agent for an outside linebacker speaks poorly of the position? No? We saw what a presence like Harry Smith adds at safety…. we need the same type force at linebacker. We have no hitters at linebacker, this includes Greenway.

    If only Freds had your optimistic point of view.

  2. Freds,
    Yes, I can agree the linebacker position will probably be a top priority come draft time.

    I think the Vikings have good players at the back end of the LB depth chart. Good special teamers that could step in and start if needed. What the Vikings lack are a couple All Pro guys to start next to Greenway.

    Yes, I will agree the linebacker spot may prove to be a weak link position group again this year, but I think the additions of Bishop, Hodges, Mauti and resigning Henderson and Mitchell is what I would call making lemon aid out out lemons.

    The Vikings do have a bit more competion this year over last… And I’m optimistic Spielman’s duck tape job at the linebacker spot will get us by this year.

    Fred old pal, I hope that you are right and the Vikings use pick #32 in the 1st round on a hard hitting stud of a linebacker.

  3. As much as Freds teases about Aaron Henderson, guy seems to work hard and care a great deal about succeeding. Freds doesn’t question his desire or work ethic, but talent may be a problem.

    1. You’ll just never forgive Erin for being successful and causing you to owe Johnny and I a case of beer and steak dinner, will you?

      1. Actually it was the Tebow being a first round draft pick that forever put Freds in your debt.

  4. Vikings will cut the third qb spot, but they will keep a extra d-lineman, not linbacker.

    1. WTF, I like the idea of keeping 9 DL this year over 8 last year. I think Adam also like 9 DL in his 53 man prediction. To make room for that extra DL Adam cut out a linebacker over the #3 QB.

      The Vikings can go in different directions this year to make room for an extra player.
      They could go with 4 safeties instead 5.
      They could go with 5 WR instead of 6 and try to hide guys like Childs, R Smith or Adam Theilen on the Practise squad.
      They could go with 6 linebackers instead of 7
      Or they could go with 2 QBs instead of 3.

  5. I like the 4 safety Idea because Larry Dean or Gerald Hodges could be used as a tradition strong safety if needed. They may not be ideal in a cover two system but in a pinch they wouldn’t be that bad of an option over Andrew Sendejo.

  6. crap, rhodes sat out due to a hammy. those can be trouble. bishop sat out, too. well, we’re gonna have injuries