Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer covets versatility, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, the Vikings have swiss army knives like Rhett Ellison and Jerick McKinnon, but it’s on defense where that malleability really shines.
There’s Anthony Barr, former UCLA defensive end, who entered the league two years ago and quickly became one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers. There’s Danielle Hunter, a raw prospect out of LSU who transformed himself into a forceful edge rusher last season. Oh, and don’t forget about Harrison Smith, a hybrid strong/free safety who truly does it all for Zimmer’s defense.
Players at every level can switch positions, move inside or out, and even stand up or put a hand in the ground; the possibilities are endless in a Zimmer system. Think back to Sharrif Floyd sliding to nose tackle last season, or Brian Robison moving inside on third-and-long situations. Zimmer’s players are expected to adapt to the changing landscape of the NFL, where teams are throwing the football more than ever and consistently lining up with three to five receivers.
With such a desire for scheme flexibility, the signing of former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur in free agency makes perfect sense. Though Lamur’s started just 15 games since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012, he has the varied experience and athleticism that Zimmer loves. When training camp begins in July, he’ll have a chance to start opposite Barr as the Vikings’ weak side linebacker, potentially adding another dimension to Minnesota’s already excellent unit.
Lamur spent four seasons with the Bengals, and before entering the NFL, was a jack-of-all-trades at Kansas State. According to the Vikings’ official website, Lamur began his career with the Wildcats as a safety and transitioned to linebacker as a junior. He was originally recruited in 2008 out of Independence Community College in Kansas and played a total of 38 games for Kansas State. Upon signing Lamur, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman highlighted the former safety’s wide range of experience.
“He’s very long,” Spielman said. “He was a former safety that got moved to linebacker, so he’s very athletic. He’s played in the nickel package in [Zimmer’s] scheme. Zim’ knows the type of player he is and how to utilize his skill set.”
In the NFL, he didn’t get his chance to start until 2012, when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals. Under Zimmer that year, Lamur played nine regular season games, started one playoff game, and finished with 21 tackles over 10 games. The following year, Lamur suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason finale and missed the entire 2013 season. Fully recovered and eager to earn his starting spot back, Lamur had a career-best year in 2014.
He started 13 games for the Bengals, notched 91 total tackles, hauled in two interceptions, and defended seven passes. In the transition to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther that season, the Bengals remained grounded in Zimmer’s principles. Thus, 2014 provided the Vikings their best, most extended look at Lamur in Zimmer’s scheme. Though he played strong side linebacker at the time, he was still accustomed to the calls, terminology, and wrinkles that made Cincinnati’s defense so successful for so many years.
“I’m going to play him at a different position than [the Bengals] were playing him,” Zimmer said, per Andrew Krammer of ESPN 150. “Where he’s covered up a little bit more and allowed to run…Some sub-packages, but also as our Will [weak-side] linebacker as opposed to the Sam [strong-side.] I think he’s got a lot of value in a lot of different areas.”
Seeing as the Vikings run a majority of defensive snaps out of Nickel personnel (four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs), Lamur will likely find his niche in what Zimmer refers to as “sub-packages.” These unique groupings are different for each team, and Zimmer particularly likes concocting new combinations in the front-seven. Barr, for example, can rotate down as a defensive end and Lamur can join Eric Kendricks at linebacker, or the Vikings can debut a “Big Nickel” package, where Lamur serves as the fifth defensive back on the field.
While these scenarios may never play out on the field, Lamur has the capacity to thrive in a number of different roles under Zimmer. And the beauty of it is, he’s done so before, playing in multiple spots in a Zimmer-style defense. Sure, the sample size is small, but Lamur’s abilities are untapped; Zimmer is one of the few head coaches in the NFL who can get the most out of an unproven player like Lamur.
As a former safety, Lamur has the foundational skills to succeed in coverage. He’ll never make it in the NFL as a full-time strong safety, but is adequate enough to make a difference in certain passing situations. With the Bengals, Lamur played the strong side, meaning he was often matched up one-on-one with tight ends in coverage; easy work for a safety-turned-linebacker. On the weak side with the Vikings, he’ll be tasked with a multitude of responsibilities, from covering tight ends to running backs and wide receivers.
Notice in the second and third examples how Lamur uses his speed and instincts to outmaneuver the target. Against the Ravens, he lines up as the point defender on top of the bunch formation, which is an assignment often tasked to safeties and cornerbacks. The Ravens run a “rub” concept to free up the tight end to the flat, and Lamur recognizes it instantly. He drops into his zone, and as soon as he sees Flacco square his shoulders, breaks on the route for the interception. Nine times out of 10, Lamur will win the race to the football in that situation.
In the next example, Lamur doesn’t fall for the tight end’s “mock block.” He keeps his base wide, and when the tight end suddenly breaks to the flat, he’s not out of position and has the speed to close quickly. Matt Ryan completes the pass, but it goes for no gain because of Lamur’s ability to make up ground in coverage. A slower linebacker like Vontaze Burfict wouldn’t have been able to make such a play.
As a bonus, keep an eye on Lamur when matched up against New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (first example). When Tom Brady sees a mismatch like this, it’s almost a certainty he’ll go Edelman’s way. Aside from throwing a poorly placed football, Brady underestimates Lamur’s abilities in coverage. For the most part, the Bengals linebacker maintains outside leverage on Edelman and is in perfect position to prevent the big play, even if the football had been thrown on target. It’ll be nice to know that Lamur, unlike Chad Greenway in his current state, can stay on the field in passing downs like this.
Lamur is nearly the size of Barr, save for an inch and 20-or-so pounds. That length and size shows up on tape, both in coverage and as a run defender.
Notice how Lamur places himself in the throwing lane of a throw intended for Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He doesn’t intercept the pass, but he’s in the correct position, and his long arms allow him to reach in and pry the football out of Hopkins’ reliable hands. In the next clip, Lamur “sets the edge,” a term to describe a defender’s ability to clog up the outside running lanes by maintaining leverage against a tight end or offensive lineman.
As noted before, Lamur isn’t the biggest or strongest linebacker — his game’s predicated on speed and instincts — but he can win with proper technique and hand placement. Against the Ravens, he sets the edge with textbook form — square shoulders and feet, hands inside, and head on the offensive player’s outside shoulder. This placement gives Lamur the advantage, as he can keep an eye on the football in the backfield and shed the block depending upon the ballcarrier’s movement.
He hesitates just a hair too long, and many players would’ve missed the tackle because of it. But Lamur’s long arms give him the unique ability to snatch players from a seemingly impossible distance. He throws the tight end inside, lunges forward, extends one hand, and makes the tackle; exceptional, if raw work from the linebacker.
In the second-to-last example, Lamur is playing on the backside of a run toward the right side of the formation. His responsibilities, according to the film, include pursuit and contain — he needs to pursue the ballcarrier from the opposite side of the field and prevent the cutback. He does that, but takes a terrible angle. If not for his long arms, the Falcons may have scored a touchdown on the play. Fortunately, he’s able to bring the ballcarrier down in spite of his mistake.
Mike Zimmer has two starting linebackers in Barr and Kendricks, both of whom will see the most snaps in his Nickel-heavy scheme. Still, the Vikings don’t use that personnel in all situations, creating a need for a third linebacker in the base defense. Chad Greenway returns for a final year in Minnesota, but he’ll face stiff competition from the younger, more versatile Lamur.
While there isn’t enough film on Lamur to proclaim him the instant starter — or call the signing a bad move — it’d be best to trust Zimmer’s instincts on his former player. Such signings, like Terence Newman in 2015, have worked out for the Vikings, and Lamur has flashed enough in his limited playing time to earn a chance to start alongside Barr and Kendricks. He has plenty to bring to the table, and the thought of Zimmer creatively mixing Lamur into the defense next season should excite all Vikings fans.