The Minnesota Vikings have addressed the defensive line. They have addressed the secondary. However, the level in between those two – linebacker – remains a work in progress.
After signing Everson Griffen to a five-year, $42.5 million contract and Linval Joseph to a five-year, $31.5 million contract, as well as adding depth with the one-year deal with Fred Evans, the defensive line makeover was a free agent priority.
The signing of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn showed the Vikings were serious about trying to improve their secondary, too.
But, to date, the only move made at linebacker has been to re-sign former Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley to a one-year contract with no guarantees. There are also no guarantees that Brinkley will be a starter, or even make the roster. He will be placed in a competition with the likes of Michael Mauti, Audie Cole and perhaps a draft pick at middle linebacker. The same is true at one of the outside linebacker spots. There is Gerald Hodges, Larry Dean, Simoni Lawrence – none with starting experience.
In other words, the Vikings have only one proven starter on their roster at linebacker: Chad Greenway.
"I wish you could say you have 22 guys that you're going to line up with and say they're all proven starters. That's not the way the NFL is. You have to plug in these young guys and you have to get them ready to play. We have an unbelievable coaching staff that I know will do a good job getting these guys ready to go," general manager Rick Spielman said. "When you look at Audie Cole, he did a nice job when he came into (middle linebacker). He can also play the strong side. Hodges can crosstrain between the strong side and weakside. They're talking about doing some things with Chad Greenway, and Jasper Brinkley can play the (middle) and can play some strong side.
"I think all that stuff will kind of sort itself out once these guys get on the field and once we get through the draft and figure out what the best combination is for all these guys."
In the Vikings' old Tampa-2 defense, Greenway started out as a weakside linebacker and was moved to the strong side. But with Mike Zimmmer's defense, Greenway could see some looks at middle linebacker.
"I don't know. That's the coach's decision," Spielman said. "I know he's played on the weak side and in our nickel package and stuff. They do a lot of things from a defensive side that's a little different than we've done in the past. Once these coaches figure out what the skill sets are and they get an opportunity to put their hands on players and figure out what their best skill set is, they figure out how to best utilize them on the field."
In free agency, the linebacker market has been pretty well picked over, and it wasn't strong to start. The top six outside linebackers, according to Scout.com's rankings, have all been signed or, in Brian Orakpo's case, received the franchise tag. There are no surefire starters left.
It's a similar story at middle linebacker. The top 10 linebackers in free agency were given three stars or better, meaning they were starting possibilities. Only one remains on the market – Akeem Jordan. One possibility entering free agency was Vincent Ray, a restricted free agent from Zimmer's former team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
"We've looked and talked about a couple of restricted guys. I think strategically there's a way you approach those guys," Spielman said last week. "Sometimes you have to see where the other team's cap situation is. Sometimes you have to look and see if you could structure something where you think they would match or would not match. There's a lot of strategic discussions that go into that if we would go dabble in that area. We talk a lot about some of the restricted guys that are currently out there."
But Rey was re-signed to the Bengals and the Vikings never did put together an offer sheet for him.
The Vikings also had Jameel McClain in for a visit, but the New York Giants signed him. That leaves Minnesota with numerous bodies at linebacker but with Greenway as the only proven starter.
"All these guys, we feel they do have ability. Most of them are able to crosstrain between one linebacker position and another," Spielman said. "There's a different philosophy on the linebackers as far as what Coach Zimmer is going to use in the nickel situations. It's a little different than we've had here in the past.
"So I'm very excited to see how it all comes out."
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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