Opinion

Sifting Through The Linebacker Depth Chart

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.

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Brent LaBathe

Brent LaBathe (Contributor) Cloud technology leader by day, sports nut by night, Brent is a local purple diehard who's passion for the team boarders on obsession. After graduating from St. Cloud State in 2008, he was a contributing writer for mvn.com and has always had a passion for writing. When he's not cursing his golf clubs for failing him yet again, he's constantly on twitter @BrentLaBathe.

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23 Comments

  1. What do you think are the chances of the Vikings trading for the brother of Eric in Phili? Would you trade CP for him straight up? If not who would you trade?

    1. I’m not sure I see the Vikings doing anything prior to this upcoming season. If they did, I’m not sure what what the Vikings/Philly would value Kendricks for, but Patterson for Kendricks seems legitimate, I guess. I have a feeling Chip Kelly would prefer draft picks than a developing wide receiver. That said, I’m not sure I would trade for Kendricks. Sure, he’s good, young and the brother of your MLB, but he’ll likely command a pretty penny in a new contract, and I think we can retain Hodges for much cheaper. I really do think Hodges can be our homegrown guy on the outside next year – if not this.

  2. You left out Brian Peters, CFLer from Northwestern, like Lindsey (she’ not a CFLer, but you know). Rick had lots of positive things to say about him at the little talk he had with PA at the OTAs last week.

    Also I see that Casey Matthews had 11 starts last year for the Eagles and 16 for his career.

    I personally like Brandon Watts for his speed and Edmond Robinson too. Robinson seems destined for the PS, he’ll have to be amazing to make this roster.

    1. I also left out Josh Kaddu, a 4th year player from Oregon. I knew I had left them off, I’m not sure I see the potential that they make the final 53 – or are even close. I could be way off, however, and if that’s the case, I’ll write a piece specifically on them…and maybe try to snag some time to talk to them during training camp, if they’ll have me!

      Wow, you are right about Mathews, I think I accidentally counted his snaps at OLB vs ILB. I’ll make that correction – but still, Kelly let him walk and he was a Duck!

      1. Yup, senior momented Kaddu. Totally blanked on him, and he was actually on the 53 man at the end of last year.

        Kaddu and Matthews, 2 ducks on a pond.

  3. Cole is 6’5″ and 240 while Kendricks is 6′ 230 but you think Cole is the one who is too small to ply the middle? Seriously?

    1. I was wondering about that one myself. I actually think a Barr/Cole/Kendricks then Barr/Kendricks and long situations would be the best LB corp

    2. You identified the issue yourself with listing their height. Cole is awfully lean for a MLB. To provide some perspective, long time Chicago Bear MLB, Brian Urlacher was 6’4″ and weighed 260lbs. 20 lbs heavier than Cole. Luke Kechly, arguably the best MLB in the league is 6′ 3″ and 235lbs. Kendricks coming in 3 inches shorter than Kechly and 5 lbs lighter isn’t a big deal at all as you suspect he’ll add weight as he is introduced to an NFL diet, training and weight lifting program. Cole has been in the league for 3 years now and has yet to add enough bulk.

      So yes, Cole is too small/lean to play MLB.

      1. Interesting theory. Is some analysis out there that supports the idea that it’s better to be heaver per height rather than just be heavier overall in the middle? Even if so, an extra 5 inches of height (plus probably a longer wing span on top of that) still makes me pretty keen on the idea of Cole in the middle, Kendricks on the outside.

        1. This is pure speculation, I’m not Bill Nye. But this is basically calculating the body mass index and ultimately, Cole would have less mass per inch of his body. Think of it this way, I can twirl a 5lb stick pretty easily, but a 5lb steel ball is much harder to handle to easily.

      2. Your bit about kuechly would to contradict your point. He’s only two inches shorter but five pounds lighter. The difference between Cole and kuechly is less then the difference between Kendricks and kuechly. And yet kuechly is one of the best deite having a build closer to that of cole. Honestly I’d rather have a guy that’s 6’5″ in the middle to bat down passes and interrupt qb line of sight. I really don’t think this size thing is nearly as big a deal as you seem to. Size does not equal strength. The real question is whether or not coxole is strong enough to play the spot and I think he shown he is. On top of that he has shown the instincts and play recognition necessary to be a solid mlb.

  4. That should be “Not AN Adrian Peterson story?” “Not A Adrian…” is incorrect.

    1. You really have an issue with grammar huh? Maybe you would be more comfortable on an 8th grade literature site.

  5. I’m hoping that Hodges beats out Greenway. Cole strikes me as being a better 4th linebacker, first guy off the bench at all three positions than a starter, and I wonder if his height actually works against him in the middle.

    1. There have certainly been taller MLB previously, so his height doesn’t scare me too much…although you have to wonder if he consistently gets his pads low enough. That said, he runs pretty lean and his inability to add any bulk is what concerns me the most at being an everyday MLB.

      1. You are correct that Cole is not a run-stuffer, but it’s hard to expect most LBs to be a big bopper and to be able to really cover backs and TEs; these generally require different skills and attributes.
        Cole is a fine coverage LB, with decent size and length. He has versatility, which makes him a quality backup.

        1. I think the way you described Cole makes him a better fit at OLB than MLB, except…I don’t really trust him in coverage either.

          1. Physically Cole’s an OLB either side, maybe better suited for SLB because he can cover TEs better theoretically with his length. But mentally he’s better suited for MLB than say Gerald Hodges for example.

            He’s probably not an ideal starter for us at any LB spot, but I like him as a backup because he has some skills and has played exceptionally well when called upon to start, which is all one could hope for from a backup player.

            That being said, because of the depth of potential talent in camp, he’s going to have to play well to keep his roster spot. Matthews has more experience, Brian Peters is an unknown and I like Brandon Watts athleticism. Of course fan favorite Mike Mauti still has as good a shot as anybody mentioned to get one of those spots if he’s fit. I think Barr, Kendricks and Greenway are the starters, with Hodges as the 4th LB. The rest of the spots, 3 maybe, are up for grabs I think. It should be fun and we’ll end up with a good group. Like I said I love Robinson, but he’s a PS guy at this point.

            Great article, if I didn’t mention it before. The group is so much better than a couple of years ago, it’s exciting.

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