Minnesota Vikings Free Agency Preview: Outside Linebacker

[Note: This segment is a part of a position-by-position look at what the Minnesota Vikings might be inclined to do during the 2015 free agency period. This is the 12th article, focusing on the outside linebackers. In case you missed it, feel free to check out the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, fullbacks, wide outs, specialists, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive ends, and defensive tackle/nose tackle.]

In 2014 Mike Zimmer stamped his mark on the Minnesota Vikings defense by getting quick development and quality production from his young outside linebackers Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges.

Barr’s rookie season started with the Vikings first round pick being in the discussion for NFL defensive rookie of the year honors, unfortunately a knee injury in the week 11 contest with the Chicago Bears stymied his fast start in the NFL.

Due to the injury to Barr and also Chad Greenway,  fourth round pick Gerald Hodges stepped in and had a breakout sophmore season with 66 total tackles, one interception for a touchdown and 7 pass deflections.

The future might seems bright for the Vikings at the outside linebacker position, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few roster question marks that will need to be addressed this off season. Chad Greenway’s play has regressed to the point where his contract and roster spot might be in jeopardy this season. Audie Cole was limited to less than 100 defensive snaps in 2014 while Michael Mauti and rookie Brandon Watts only saw 7 combined defensive snaps.

Rick Spielman and the Vikings are always looking to add talent to the roster and the outside linebacker spot is one position group that could see a couple new faces in training camp.

This years free agency crop has a few 4-3 outside linebackers who could get a nice look from Zimmer.

Akeem Ayers, OLB, Patriots. Age 26
Ayers was a second round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans in the 2011 NFL Draft. After being traded to the Patriots in 2014, Ayers has played very well in a limited starting role. Well suited as a 4-3 weak side backer with excellent length, burst and awareness who also has a three down skill set. While in New England Ayers showcase some pass rush abilities.
Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Falcons. Age 27
Injuries have kept him off the field for much of the past two seasons in Atlanta. Weatherspoon has pro bowl caliber talent when healthy. He missed all of 2014 with an achilles injury. The Falcons drafted Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He plays very fast and physical and has collected 290 career tackles, eight sacks, and two interceptions.

Malcolm Smith, OLB Seahawks. Age 26
Smith went from MVP of Superbowl XLVIII to part time starter in 2014. Smith is a three down linebacker with enough tools to be a productive starter in the NFL. He is undersized at 6’0” 226 pound but is just reaching his prime with a career total of 16 starts.

Bruce Carter, OLB, Cowboys. Age 27
Carter’s 5 interceptions in 2014 are evidence of his range and rare athletic skill. He struggled in a 3-4, but thrived when Dallas switched to a 4-3. When healthy, Carter has outstanding potential. He may not be a high profile signing but he has enough upside to have a great year in the right defense.

Justin Durant, OLB, Cowboys. Age 29
Durant started 12 games over the past two seasons in Dallas and is midline starter with ability to play both strong-side or weak-side. Good in run support but is not a pass rush threat or great in coverage.

Jason Worlds, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age 27
Danny Lansanah (RFA), OLB Buccaneers. Age 30
Lance Briggs, OLB, Bears. Age 34
James Harrison, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age 37
Brooks Reed, DE/OLB/ILB, Texans. Age 28
Geno Hayes, OLB, Jaguars. Age 28
Jacquian Williams, OLB Giants. Age 27
Parys Haralson, DE/OLB, Saints. Age 31
Mark Herzlich, OLB, Giants. Age 28
Ashlee Palmer, OLB, Lions. Age 29
Josh Bynes, OLB, Lions. Age 26
O’Brien Schofield, DE/OLB, Seahawks. Age 28
Dan Skuta, DE/OLB, 49ers. Age 29
Heath Farwell, OLB/ST, Seahawks. Age 33
Keith Rivers, OLB, Bills. Age 29
Chase Blackburn, OLB, Panthers. Age 32
Andy Studebaker, DE/OLB, Colts. Age 29
Orie Lemon (RFA), OLB, Buccaneers. Age 27
Spencer Paysinger, OLB, Giants. Age 27
Jonathan Freeny (RFA), DE/OLB, Dolphins. Age 26
Larry Dean, OLB, Bills. Age 27
Chris Carter, OLB, Bengals. Age 26
Kaelin Burnett (RFA), OLB, Titans. Age 25

Prediction:

I think Bruce Carter has the size, speed and athletic skill set that Zimmer covets in a rangy defender. Adding a versatile athlete who has a knack for finding the football might be on Zimmer’s offseason to do list.

At the moment however, finding a great middle linebacker is a more pressing need on the Vikings radar. Unfortunately, after taking a quick peek at the free agent market and the talent available in this years draft class, I think the value is at the outside linebacker position.

One option might be to move Hodges to the middle and that would open the door for the Vikings to sign a free agent or draft one of the young standout outside linebackers like Vic Beasley or Shaq Thompson. With a little creativity, Zimmer could dial up the right moves that could really improve the speed and athleticism of our base defense.

One thing is for sure, the Vikings will certainly be adding a few linebackers to the 90 man roster this offseason. They may not make a splashy free agent signing, but it will be fun to watch what Zimmer does this offseason at the linebacker positions.