Starting Sauer?

While the Vikings just signed a fifth-round pick at linebacker, their starting ranks are still up in the air.

When the Vikings let Dwayne Rudd test and capitalize on the free-agent market with a five-year, $23 million deal with Cleveland, it left open a starting spot in the linebacker corps. Fortunately for the Vikings, they were able to rework a deal with Ed McDaniel instead of a releasing him because of the salary cap and tender Kailee Wong a one-year offer as a restricted free agent.

Instead of completely revamping the unit, the Vikings entered their early May minicamp looking for just one starting linebacker. By all appearances in those and other practices, Gabe Northern had taken over as the third starter. But now that isn't so certain.

Northern came to the Vikings before the second game of the season last year after playing outside linebacker in Buffalo's 3-4 alignment in previous years. The Vikings quickly declared Northern a defensive end -- mainly because they desperately needed a pass rusher there. However, a combination of Northern's unfamiliarity at the position, injuries and his ineffectiveness saw Northern inactive for seven games, including two playoff games.

But Northern might not have the starting job at his more natural position of outside linebacker secured for 2001. Head coach Dennis Green recently said that Craig Sauer is a starter, meaning Northern has slipped a notch in the offseason depth chart.

Sauer, who showed a lot of quickness and awareness in training camp 2000, also missed out on a large portion of last year, but his lack of playing time was due almost exclusively to a persistent plantar fascia (arch of the foot) injury. He registered two tackles in one midseason game while attempting to come back, but a month later was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

Sauer offers more quickness than Northern and more experience in the more popular 3-4 defensive alignment and Northern has more size. But Sauer's experience with the Falcons early in his career and his abilities while healthy with the Vikings last season have impressed the coaches enough to give him an advantage in the battle for the third starting linebacker spot.

The battle between Northern and Sauer will be one of many to watch on the defensive side of the ball when the Vikings open training camp July 30 in Mankato.

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