Vikings LB situation will hint at scheme

The Vikings were thin on starting linebackers at the end of 2013 and the release of Erin Henderson further depleted them. Is that a signal that rumors of a 3-4 defense are off-base?

The Vikings questions at linebacker got more pronounced with Friday's release of Erin Henderson and may have shot down the potential for the Vikings to make the rumored shift to a 3-4 defense.

While the move to a 3-4 was an iffy proposition at best because the Vikings don't have a pure nose tackle like Pat Williams was for the Buffalo Bills and taking Sharrif Floyd with their first pick in the 2013 draft seemed to signal that the Vikings intended to remain in a 4-3. If they do make the switch to the 3-4, the Vikings will have a lot of work ahead of them.

The Vikings ended the season with just six linebackers on the roster. With the release of Henderson, it cut that number down to five. Of those, only Chad Greenway is a lock to be in the starting lineup next year. Desmond Bishop ended the year on injured reserve and there are serious questions as to whether he will able to hold up for a full season. If he is in the NFL next year, with the Vikings or somebody else, it will likely be under a one-year contract. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

Marvin Mitchell is a seven-year veteran who did little last year to take the starting job he was handed in training camp and make the most of it. He lost his starting job to Bishop, who ended up suffering his season-ending injury in his first start. Mitchell was reinserted as the starter at outside linebacker, but lost it again when Henderson was shifted over. He started 10 games but didn't start any of the last four.

The rest of the players are ones that draft war rooms saw as being too risky to use a pick on. The Vikings brought in Larry Dean as an undrafted rookie in 2011. Audie Cole, who finished the year on injured reserve, was a seventh-round pick in 2012. Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti were fourth- and seventh-round picks, respectively, in last April's draft. Neither of them made a start and both were used almost exclusively as special teams players.

It seems clear that the Vikings need to upgrade at linebacker regardless of whether they play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. However, making the move to a 3-4 would likely require the Vikings to have at least eight linebackers on their opening day roster and, as things currently stand, it can be argued they only have one that is a deserving every-week starter – Greenway.

With Mike Zimmer coming in preaching an aggressive approach to playing defense, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Vikings bring in a free agent to be an immediate starter and using a couple of draft picks, including one likely on Day 2 of the draft, to help fill this need. If the Vikings had an assurance that Everson Griffen would be back, he would likely fill one piece in the 3-4 defense potential switch. But with Griffen unsigned, the Vikings have many more special teams types than actual NFL starting types in their linebacker corps. If the plan is to make the eventual switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it will likely have to come after the 2014 season, because the team didn't have quality depth in a 4-3 defense and the release of Henderson makes that disparity even more pronounced.

If you're starting to get into free agency and/or draft mode now that the 2013 season is disappearing in the rearview mirror, you may want to pay some special attention to the linebackers available in free agency and those linebackers that will be working out at the Combine. You can bet the Vikings will be paying attention.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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