Vikings vs. NFC North: Outside linebackers

The presence of Anthony Barr helps bolster the Vikings’ outside linebacker corps, but most of the NFC North’s outside linebacker units have an aging veteran.

1. Green Bay Packers
Starters: Julius Peppers, Nick Perry
Key Backups: Jay Elliott, Mike Neal
Outside linebackers are asked to do many different things and their roles in a defense can vary greatly depending on the type of scheme they play. The Packers run a 3-4 defensive scheme so their outside linebackers are often asked to rush the passer more often than the outside linebackers in a 4-3 system. For that reason, there is a higher probability that the Packers linebackers could create a big play.

Peppers has made a habit of creating big plays since he first entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2002. Even though he has been in the NFL for 13 seasons, 2014 was the first year he played as an outside linebacker instead of a defensive end. Some of his numbers declined a little, but he was still able to make a big impact throughout the season.

During the regular season, Peppers recorded 44 tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions – both of which were returned for touchdowns. At the age of 35, he is becoming one of the older defensive players in the NFL, but he is still talented enough to where teams need to game plan for him.

At the start of the 2014 season, the outside linebacker spot opposite Peppers belonged to Clay Matthews, but he was moved to inside linebacker during the regular season. After that, the defense started to improve so the Packers intend to keep him in the middle in the base defense.

That means that the starting spot opposite Peppers likely will go to Perry, who was a first-round draft pick in 2012 but has yet to make a big impact for the Packers’ defense. He played in 15 games last year and recorded 23 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. But all of those numbers should increase during the 2015 season when he becomes the full-time starter.

2. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: Anthony Barr, Chad Greenway
Key Backups: Gerald Hodges, Brandon Watts
Barr was well on his way to having a successful rookie season after the Vikings drafted him the first round last year. He was making plays all over the field and was often in the conversation as a player in contention for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but Barr suffered a knee injury late in the season and was forced to miss the final four games of the season after the team placed him on injured reserve.

Before his injury, Barr recorded 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries – one of which was returned for a touchdown. It was just Barr’s third season playing as a linebacker after switching from running back his junior year at UCLA. As he continues to gain experience and learn the position, his play should continue to improve, and he has the size and athleticism to become one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL.

While Barr is a very young player who is just beginning his career, Greenway is one of the more veteran players on the Vikings roster who is getting close to the end of his career. He was originally the Vikings’ first-round draft pick back in 2006 and is now entering into his 10th season and he has already hinted that he could be retiring once this season is over.

Greenway has never been the flashiest player in the NFL, but he has always been a consistent player and leader on the Vikings defense. He never missed a game from 2007-13 after having to miss his entire rookie season with a torn ACL he suffered in the preseason.

Greenway then suffered a several injuries in 2014 and was forced to miss four games, but he was still able to record 93 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Now the Vikings will have to make the decision if they want to continue to use Greenway in nickel coverage or switch him into being a two-down type of player.

3. Detroit Lions
Starters: Kyle Van Noy, DeAndre Levy
Key Backups: Josh Bynes, Julian Stanford
Levy was one of the best run-stopping outside linebackers in the NFL during the course of the 2014 season. He was able to record a career-high 151 tackles, which was second in the league and only two tackles behind the league leader. However, apart from his run-stopping abilities he did not do much else, recording just 2½ sacks and one interception during the season.

Levy will now be entering his seventh season in the NFL and is a leader on the Lions defense. The coaching staff will likely be looking to him to once again to have a big season in 2015 to help ease the pain of losing their two starting defensive tackles. He will also have to help Van Noy with playing the position since he is a very inexperienced player.

Van Noy was the Lions’ second-round draft pick in 2014. He was expected to make an impact on the team during his rookie season but missed a lot of time because of injuries. He played in eight games and recorded just six tackles, so there is still a lot of question as to how he is going to do in the NFL.

Ashlee Palmer was the starter opposite Levy for most of the year last year, but he became a free agent this offseason and the Lions seem comfortable parting ways with him. That speaks to the confidence they have in Van Noy’s abilities.

If Van Noy is able to perform at a high level, then it is possible that the Lions climb higher on this list, especially if Levy is able to duplicate his 2014 performance. But there just seems to be too many unknowns at this point to put them any higher.

4. Chicago Bears
Starters: Jared Allen, Pernell McPhee
Key Backups: Willie Young, Shea McClellin
The Chicago Bears were undergoing some changes this offseason. They are converting to a 3-4 defensive scheme under their new head coach John Fox and now Allen will be playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career.

For years, Allen had been one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, but his production took a significant decrease in 2014 when he recorded 55 tackles and 5½ sacks. A big reason for his decreased stats was because he was recovering from pneumonia for most of the season after the illness caused him to lose 15 pounds.

At the age of 33, Allen is now entering his 12th season in the NFL and it will be interesting to see if he can return to his Pro Bowl form. Not only that, but it will also be interesting to see how he transitions from defensive end to outside linebacker so late in his career.

McPhee is expected to play opposite Allen after joining the Bears this offseason. He spent the first four years of his career playing for the Baltimore Ravens, and while he never put up any eye-popping numbers he always seemed to have decent seasons, recording 27 tackles and 7½ sacks in 2014.

If everything goes well transitioning into the 3-4 defensive scheme, it is possible the Bears’ positioning on this list could change. But where it stands right now, McPhee is is simply solid and Allen might not be a good fit as an outside linebacker. He seems to be a better fit as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, where he is allowed to freelance to get to the quarterback.

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