The Vikings entered last year's training camp with far more questions than answers when it came to the linebacker unit. This year the team still has questions with the position, but instead of "How do you think they'll do?" the question is "Just how good can this group get?"
To wit: The depth chart entering the 2002 preseason opener was Patrick Chukwurah on the strong side, Henri Crockett in the middle and Lemanski Hall on the weak side -- and the backups had even less experience. Jim Nelson was a solid special teams player, but he started on defense only in desperate times. Nick Rogers was in the infancy stages of converting from a college defensive lineman to an NFL linebacker, and Raonall Smith was another rookie struggling to pick up the nuances and assignments of the pro defenders.
"It was a tough situation for us (in training camp)," linebackers coach Brian Baker said. "We didn't have an established Mike (middle). We didn't have an established Sam (strongside). And we had a Will (weakside) because he was the best of a bad group, no disrespect. That's kind of how it was. I remember having to talk to those guys last year and saying ‘We will not be the reason that we lose games. I refuse to let this group lose games for us.' That isn't even a remote thought for us this year. This year I'm excited because I think we're going to win some games for us."
The availability of Greg Biekert at the end of training camp was a godsend. Suddenly the Vikings had a savvy middle linebacker to straighten out the defense under Willie Shaw's more complicated scheme. Henri Crockett was then able to move from the middle to the weak side, where he didn't have to concern himself with everyone else's assignments and alignments, and Chukwurah eventually played himself out of a starting role -- and once the season was over a job with the Vikings altogether. The Vikings elected to not re-sign Hall or Nelson.
Instead, Baker is preparing a starting group with far more experience and loads more proven talent. Biekert has had a year in the Vikings' system and will get a simpler scheme to work with under new defensive coordinator George O'Leary. Crockett gets a full offseason to prepare at his more natural weakside position, and the addition of Chris Claiborne on the strong side could be the steal of free agency 2003.
"It was one of those things where the good Lord was looking out for me, I guess," Baker said of the Claiborne acquisition. "One day, Mike (Tice) came to me and said, ‘I think we've got a chance to get Chris Claiborne. Would you want him?' I said, ‘Would I want him? Yeah, of course I'd want him.' He said, ‘Where would you play him?' I said, ‘Right now we'd need him at Sam. Would he be willing to play Sam?' It sounded like he'd want to play anything, so we gave him a call.
"At the time, I didn't really know how Chris would be with me because when I was coaching the d-line (in Detroit) I was kind of being my normal pain-in-the-butt self and he was kind of a young guy living on his talent, so I challenged him quite a bit. I didn't really care, but I didn't know whether I pissed him off or not. I told Mike, ‘He might be pissed off at me because it wasn't like we were best buddies when I was there.' We called and, as it turned out, whether or not he was blowing smoke up my rear or not, that was one of the reasons he wanted to come because it was somebody who was familiar with him and somebody who could push him."
Added Baker: "The one thing he has always had is a tremendous amount of pride. He has not always had a tremendous amount of focus. As a young kid, I think that's the thing that slowed him up. But now he's got that same pride and focus, and the fact that his weight is under control and he's in good running shape at this point in the season, heck, coming out of college he wasn't in this good of shape. So I'm really, really excited about him."
While Claiborne immediately upgrades the talent level in the starting ranks, it also allows the younger backups time to develop. Nick Rogers won't be forced to start full-time on the heels of Chukwurah's mistakes. Instead, he will be given time to become comfortable at linebacker and be used in pass-rushing situations.
Drafted rookies E.J. Henderson and Mike Nattiel also won't be forced into action before they are ready, even though Henderson was considered the best middle linebacker in the draft. He was busy learning in minicamp, as was Nattiel.
"E.J., I'm excited about him," Baker said. "I can't wait until he learns it all so I can truly see how fast he plays. He's still thinking a lot, and that slows him down a bit. The same thing with Nattiel."
Second-year players Smith and Max Yates are also making progress, but Yates had the advantage of being able to practice last year while Smith spent the season on injured reserve and wasn't able to use his first year to continue learning as much as Baker would have liked.
"Smitty we're staring over a little bit with," Baker said. "Missing last year hurt. He hasn't lost any of his athletic ability, so we're bringing him along."
That's the key this year. Baker is able to develop talent at a pace that is healthier to the individual players and to the team that won't have to rely on them before they are ready. That makes the 2003 linebacker corps light years ahead of the 2002 version -- in immediate impact and in the long-range potential of the younger backups.
"The difference is, this year those guys don't have to start. Last year, the guys we had to pull along were playing," Baker said. "Obviously, having Biekert for an entire offseason as opposed to one week before a game makes a big difference."
"It's a good group. Any time you're talking about, ‘This guy is a little of this and this guy is a little bit of that' and they're your backups, you are OK.' When you're talking about, ‘This guy is a little bit of this and this guy is a little bit of that' and you have to go to war with them on Sundays as your starters, that's when you're just hoping they don't get us beat."
Instead, Baker is looking for his men to beat up on the opposition. He certainly has a better chance to make that happen this year.
Linebackers Showing Depth, Talent
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