Vikings position of need: Outside linebacker

The Vikings might have their starting outside linebacker on the roster already, but they have to at least address the depth. What are the options on the roster and in free agency?

The biggest question mark surrounding the outside linebacker position for the Minnesota Vikings is what will happen with Chad Greenway. He finished his ninth year in the NFL, is 31 years old, and with young talent at his position it is possible that there will no longer be a spot for him on the Vikings defense. This offseason, Greenway and the Vikings’ front office could try to renegotiate his contract so he can remain a Viking at a price in line with his production and age – he is scheduled to count $8.8 million against the salary cap in 2015, the final year of his contract.

Last season was a down year for Greenway, who missed four games with injuries and finished the year with a -12.2 rating from Pro Football Focus. That rating made him the third lowest outside linebacker in the NFL at the end of the 2014 season, despite recording 115 tackles – second on the team – and one sack. Greenway has spent his entire career with the Vikings since they selected him out of Iowa in the first round of the 2006 draft.

If Greenway is not back for the 2015 season it is likely that his replacement is already on the team in Gerald Hodges. Last year it was Hodges that filled in for Greenway when he was hurt, and by the end of the season he was one of the highest rated outside linebackers in the NFL. PFF had him rated 8.0, which made him the ninth rated player at his position in the NFL.

Hodges just finished up his second year in the league and he showed that he might be ready to take that next step to being a starter. He recorded 73 tackles, half a sack and an interception that he returned for a touchdown. One question mark surrounding Hodges is how well he will hold up over the course of an entire season. He may have performed well last season, but he was also fairly well-rested throughout the season as he only played in 46.49 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps.

The Vikings have another talented young linebacker who would play opposite Hodges in Anthony Barr. Barr was the first-round draft-pick of the Vikings in the 2014 draft, and he was a starter since Week 1. He ended the season with a 9.3 overall grade from PFF and the No. 8 outside linebacker in the league. Week in and week out Barr proved that he had the potential to be a game-changing linebacker – recording 99 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and a touchdown – but his season was cut short when he was placed on the injured reserve to have minor knee surgery.

Barr will be one of the starters when the 2015 season starts up, but the one opposite him is still up in the air. If Greenway is with the team next season, he will likely be the starter. If he isn’t, though, then the job will likely go to Hodges. There is always the possibility that the Vikings bring in a free agent to help push Hodges/Greenway and Barr, but more likely they will use the draft to help add depth to the position.

Free agency
There is not a ton of free-agent talent at the outside linebacker position this offseason. One player that could be possible to see the Vikings bring in is Geno Hayes. Hayes is 28 years old and played for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014, recording 51 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble. At the end of the season, PFF had him rated 5.9. The problem with Hayes is that he struggled in pass coverage from time to time, and last year the Vikings usually kept their outside linebackers on the field for the nickel passing formations.

Another player that the Vikings could look to bring in is Justin Durant. He is 29 years old and played with the Dallas Cowboys during the 2014 season, recording 49 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. One reason that his numbers are lower is because he only played in six games – 336 snaps. PFF gave Durant a 3.0 grade at the end of the season. He didn’t shine in any specific aspect of his game, but instead was average in defending the run (0.5), rushing the passer (0.9), and pass coverage (1.0).

Other outside linebacker free agents that played in a 4-3 system are Lance Briggs, who is 34 years old and a 7.6 rating with the Chicago Bears last season; Mark Herzlich, who is 27 years old and received a 2.0 rating with the New York Giants; and Parys Haralson, who is 31 years old and received a 1.5 rating while with the New Orleans Saints last season.

Where the Vikings will really look to add depth to the outside linebacker position is the NFL draft. It is not very likely that they will use another first-day draft pick – they drafted Barr in the first round last year – but it is likely that they will use one or two mid- to late-round picks at the position.

Last season they drafted Brandon Watts in the seventh round, but he had to deal with hamstring injuries throughout the 2014 season. The Vikings also have Josh Kaddu, who was called up off of the practice squad during the final game of the regular season, and Audie Cole, although he his listed more as a middle linebacker.

Even though the Vikings seem to know – to some degree – who their starting outside linebackers will be next season, they will need to bring in more to help add depth at the position. Last year showed how important it is to add depth, and how quickly players can get injured, so look for them to address at least the depth in free agency and in the draft.

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