Position analysis: Outside linebacker

The Vikings have some up and coming talent at linebacker, but their first big decision will be with veteran Chad Greenway. We take a player-by-player look at the position.

Anthony Barr
Barr finished his rookie season in the NFL after the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the first round in the 2014 draft. Since Day 1 he was a starter for the Vikings and quickly showed that he was the potential makes to be a star.

He finished the season with 99 tackles and four sacks, and all of that with only playing in 12 games this season – he sat out the second half of Week 13 with a knee injury and was eventually put on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. At the rate he was going he would have finished leading the team in tackles with 132 tackles.

Pro Football Focus gave Barr a 9.3 rating, which made him the No. 8-ranked outside linebacker in a 4-3 system in the NFL – and the highest ranked Vikings linebacker. During the season Barr only had two games where he was given a negative score. The first was Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers, when he recorded six tackles but struggled defending the run. The other game was Week 12 – again against the Packers – when he was given a -2.1 rating, recording four tackles but struggling to defend the pass.

Barr will continue to be an important piece in the Vikings defense, and after his rookie year he has already given people a glimpse of how good he can be. The thing to remember is he is still learning the position, as he did not become a linebacker until his third year in college. Next season he should come back fully healthy from his injury and continue to improve his game.

Chad Greenway
Greenway finished his ninth season in the NFL after the Vikings picked him in the first round of the 2007 draft. Even though he was drafted in 2007, Greenway really did not get a chance to play until 2008, as he tore his ACL on the opening kickoff of the 2007 season.

The 2014 season was also an injury-ridden one for Greenway as he missed four games total. There was a three-game stretch from Week 4-6 where he was out because of a broken rib, and then he also was forced to miss the last game of the regular season due to a knee injury. When he was first out in Week 4, it ended his streak of 90 consecutive starts in the regular season.

Even though Greenway only played in 70.2 percent of the Vikings’ defensive plays last season, he still almost led the team in tackles. He ended the season with 115 tackles – second on the team to Harrison Smith (120) – one sack and a forced fumble.

Despite the high number of tackles, PFF still gave Greenway a low ranking at the end of the season as he continually struggled against the run and pass. He was given a -15.9 rating at the end of the season – he only ranked positive for three games – which made him the No. 38-ranked outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense in the NFL. There were only two linebackers ranked lower than Greenway, Emmanuel Lamur for the Cincinnati Bengals (-12.5), and Ramon Humber for the New Orleans Saints (-12.9).

Even though Greenway is not in a contract year, there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding his future with the Vikings. He will be 33 years old and the Vikings are likely going to be looking to restructure his contract this offseason. If he is not willing to do so there is a possibility they will cut him in order to free up cap space and go with a younger player to fill his role.

Gerald Hodges
Hodges finished his second year in the NFL after the Vikings drafted him out of Penn State in the fourth round in 2013. In college, Hodges led his team in tackles both his junior and senior years, recording over 100 tackles each year.

This season, Hodges saw a lot more action than he did his rookie year, as it was his responsibility to fill in when Greenway was out with injuries. He got his first career start against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, and by the end of the season he ended up being on the field for 503 defensive snaps – 46.5 percent of the defensive plays.

Even though it was on a limited basis, Hodges had a very good season. PFF had him ranked as the No. 9 outside linebacker in a 4-3 system in the NFL – ranked one spot behind Barr – with an 8.3 rating. Hodges recorded 73 tackles, half a sack and an interception. That interception came at the start of the Week 14 game against the New York Jets and he returned it for a touchdown – it was the fastest defensive touchdown in team history, as it was scored 12 seconds into the game.

As Hodges gains more experience in the NFL and gets more comfortable in Mike Zimmer’s defense, his role should continue to increase. It could also drastically increase, however, if the Vikings part ways with Greenway because it would likely be up to Hodges to step up and start in his place.

Josh Kaddu
Kaddu finished up his third year in the NFL, and his first with the Vikings. He was originally selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft by the Miami Dolphins and was released by the team in 2013. He was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 and signed to a futures contract in January, but was released by the team in August. He was then placed on the Vikings’ practice squad on Sept. 9 and activated to their active roster on Dec. 27 when Barr was placed on injured reserve.

If Kaddu remains with the Vikings, there is a chance that he could impress the coaches at the start of the season and earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

Brandon Watts
Watts finished his rookie year in the NFL after the Vikings drafted him out of Georgia Tech in the seventh round. He was the second of three seventh-round picks by the Vikings and the second linebacker selected by them, joining Barr.

Watts was inactive for the first 14 weeks of the season with a nagging, recurring hamstring injury. Then in Week 15 he made his NFL debut of special teams, and even got the opportunity to play on the defensive side of the ball the next week against the Miami Dolphins.

His time on the field didn’t last, though, as he suffered another hamstring injury after just six plays. Zimmer was clearly not happy with Watts’ inability to stay healthy when asked about it the following week, and you can be sure that Watts was disappointed as well.

Watts did not do much to prove that he deserves a spot on the 53-man roster of the Vikings, but he is still a young player with a lot of athletic ability. The Vikings should give him another chance next season.

Outside Linebackers Overview

First and foremost, the Vikings need to make a decision regarding Greenway. It sounds as though both sides want to work something out, but it is still unclear if they will actually be able to. The Vikings have a lot of young talent at the outside linebacker position, but other than Greenway there is not much for veteran leadership.

The young talent on the team – Barr (22) and Hodges (23) – proved that they can play in the NFL at a high level consistently and likely will be contributors with the defense for years to come. Both players made multiple mistakes throughout the season, but that is expected when working with young players getting used to playing in the NFL and learning a new defensive system.

There is not much depth for the Vikings at this position, and with multiple players going down with injuries last season you can be sure they will add depth this offseason. Whether it be via the draft or free agency is yet to be seen, and there is always the possibility they use both to address the need.

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