NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell was posed a question: What should the Vikings do with their linebacker situation?
Two of the three starters in the linebacker corps – Jasper Brinkley in the middle and Erin Henderson on the weak side – are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents one week from today. Neither are Pro Bowl-caliber, Cosell admits, but he cautions that the Vikings would still have to replace them, which isn't always as easy it may appear on paper.
"You still have to line up with people, that's the problem. … You've got to line up with three linebackers," Cosell said. "You've got Chad Greenway and he's very good and now you've got your other two starters who are unrestricted. You've got to replace them. If they're not there, you've got to line up. The question is, it's a risk-reward thing. What's the market going to bear for them and what are you going to pay to bring them back if you want to bring them back? Or do you draft guys or go sign another guy who is more than likely going to be about equal to those guys that you're letting go."
Greenway led the Vikings with 191 tackles, including seven for loss, and added three sacks, six quarterback hurries, seven passes defensed, an interception and two fumble recoveries, according to team statistics. Brinkley was third in tackles with 117 and second with three forced fumbles, and Henderson was fourth with 112 tackles and third with 10 tackles for loss.
Per usual, when equating the risk-reward of re-signing one or both of the unrestricted linebackers, price will be a factor. Rookies almost always come cheaper, at least those picked after the first round, than re-signing a veteran starter that will be looking for a sizeable signing bonus.
However, draft picks usually come with more risk than veterans.
"It's easy to say, well, go draft guys. They are total unknowns. I agree that neither Brinkley nor Henderson is an all-pro linebacker. But it's the same defensive staff, they know the system," Cosell said. "It just comes down to now what are you willing to pay and what do their agents think they're going to get, and what are they going to get?"
While free agency holds dozens of available linebackers, there aren't many obviously better than Henderson and Brinkley. Although the Vikings would almost certainly backfill with potential starters if they didn't re-sign either Brinkley or Henderson, the draft might provide better potential in the early rounds.
Cosell, however, doesn't see any obvious answers for the Vikings with their first-round pick or beyond. Either he isn't sold on the abilities or there are character questions.
"I did not love Khaseem Greene in the games I watched. He's very light. He almost plays like a safety," Cosell said. "The most gifted linebacker in the draft, but now he's got issues, is Alec Ogletree. He's an incredibly athletic kid at 235, 240 pounds. Now he's got issues so we have no idea and you've got to be careful. I really liked the Kevin Minter kid from LSU."
"I think (Minter) is a stacked linebacker. A lot of 4-3 teams play with two stacked linebackers because that's what they do. He's a stacked linebacker and I think he could be available at 23. He's a good player … If you make your board and Kevin Minter is the 25th-best player and you take him at 23, it's a good pick for you."
Green is ranked 81st by Jamie Newberg of FOX Sport Next, far lower than most analysts have him, and Ogletree is the 22nd-ranked player by Newberg, who just released his top 100 after attending the NFL Scouting Combine and watching film on his top 100. Minter is ranked 37th because of deficiencies in his coverage skills, which is likely to downgrade him on the Vikings' board, as they asked their middle linebacker to drop into coverage.
Another possibility, likely in the second or third round is North Carolina's Kevin Reddick, ranked 66th by Newberg.
"I thought Reddick was a two-down linebacker based on my study. I think some will disagree with me and I get that," said Cosell, who shies away from rankings. "I thought he was more of a base-personnel linebacker – that's the better way to say it because teams will line up with three wide on first down. But I think he's a base personnel linebacker. The reason I think some could disagree with me is because I think there were times when I saw potential for movement where he could probably be a little more, so now you have to decide if he can become that at the next level – and he may become that at the next level. I don't think he'd be a first-round pick. I think you could get him, based on my sense, later than that."
Zaviar Gooden could be a bit of sleeper for Vikings fans. While he is ranked a few picks below Reddick by Newberg – Gooden is 70th – he could be ranked higher by the Vikings given their linebacker responsibilities.
When asked which linebackers were best in coverage, Gooden was the first name Cosell mentioned.
"He and Green are the most athletic linebackers that I've seen and I have not seen them all. But Gooden reminds me of Wesley Woodyard
(Broncos) when he came out of Kentucky and he may not have even been drafted, but Woodyard started out as a sub-package linebacker and now has morphed into a starter and is a very solid NFL linebacker," Cosell said. "He was 223 pounds or whatever when he came out. People said, ‘Oh, he can't start' because it's stereotypes. Gooden is an athlete. He's an intriguing player to me."
There might not be any surefire replacements for the Vikings' free-agent linebackers in either free agency or the draft, but there are numerous possibilities if Brinkley and Henderson sign elsewhere.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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