Vikings vs. NFC North: Inside linebackers

The Vikings have some uncertainty surrounding their rotation at middle linebacker, as do most teams in the NFC North.

1. Green Bay Packers
Starters: Clay Matthews, Carl Bradford
Key Backups: Joe Thomas, Sam Barrington
Matthews is not your everyday inside linebacker. Until a year ago he had been an outside linebacker and one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. During the 2014 season the Packers defense had been struggling and one of the worst in the league, so the coaching staff decided something needed to change. They moved Matthews to the inside and, sure enough, the defense improved dramatically.

Because of the success the defense had with Matthews playing the inside, he is expected to play there again for the 2015 season in the base defense. Even though Matthews moved to the inside of the defense, his role did not change too much. He was not a run-stopper like most inside linebackers are and he still recorded 11 sacks.

The team is likely not worried about that, though, because of their fourth-round draft pick from 2014, Bradford. Coming out of college he was expected to be picked in the second or third round but fell into fourth, where the Packers drafted him. He was thought to be an explosive tackler with good hands and someone who flashed playmaking abilities.

Bradford was an outside linebacker in college and struggled to pick up what the Packers were asking of him when he moved to the inside. For that reason, he was inactive for every game during his rookie season, but now it appears he is ready to take the next step and be a starter for the team.

However, it is also very possible that Barrington could beat him out for the starting spot before the start of the regular season. Barrington was a seventh-round draft pick in 2013, so he is also a young player on the Packers roster. And unlike Bradford, Barrington played in 14 games in 2014 and recorded 54 tackles and a sack.

2. Detroit Lions
Starter: Stephen Tulloch
Key Backups: Tahir Whitehead
Heading into the 2014 season, Tulloch was considered one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL, but he suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear while celebrating a sack. Even though ACL surgeries have gotten better and plenty of players recover and regain their form again, it is never a sure thing.

A healthy Tulloch would likely be No. 1 on this list, but the uncertainty of how he will perform when he gets back bumps him down. One positive that he does have going for him, however, is that the injury occurred in the third week of the season, which means he had plenty of time to recover. But at the age of 30 it is always harder to recover from a serious injury.

He was originally a fourth-round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2006 and played with them until joining the Lions in 2011. Since joining the Lions, Tulloch has held down the middle of their defense, recording 358 tackles and seven tackles in his first three seasons with them. He then recorded 20 tackles and two sacks before being placed on injured reserve in 2014.

With Tulloch on IR, the starting linebacker responsibilities were given to Whitehead and he played well in the role. In his first game as a full-time starter, Week 4, he recorded 12 tackles. Then just two weeks later he recorded two interceptions against the Vikings.

Both of these players have the ability to be solid middle linebackers in the NFL, but the job will likely go to Tulloch at the start of the season. But at least the coaching staff can feel comfortable knowing that if anything happens to him again, or he underperforms, they have a suitable replacement waiting in the wings.

3. Chicago Bears
Starters: Jonathan Bostic, Mason Foster
Key Backups: Sam Acho, Christian Jones
Bostic is a 24-year-old linebacker who has showed some promise early in his career. He was originally a second-round pick by the Bears in 2013 and in his first two seasons he has recorded 140 tackles, two sacks and one interception. He was forced to miss three games during the 2014 season, but if he is able to stay healthy he has the ability to become a good linebacker in the NFL.

Foster is expected to play next to Bostic. He was a third-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in 2011 and played with them for the first four years of his career. Foster is a stout run defender but not much for a pass defender and had trouble understanding the Tampa-2 defense that came along with the Buccaneers new head coach Lovie Smith.

Because he struggled with learning the system, the Buccaneers chose to not re-sign him once his rookie contract was up and the Bears signed him to a one-year deal this offseason. Foster had some injury problems in 2013 and 2014, but if he can stay healthy he should be able to help the Bears improve their defense.

Both of these guys are young players who have the ability to be very solid defenders up the middle. A big part of their development, however, will be their health – they have both missed time with injuries early in their career.

Another thing to watch will be how they deal with the new defensive scheme that new Bears head coach John Fox will be implementing in Chicago. Both players have little to no experience playing in a 3-4 defensive scheme, so the way they fit into it will be an important aspect to monitor.

4. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Audie Cole
Key Backups: Eric Kendricks
The starting middle linebacker job is still up in the air at this point and could go to either Cole or Kendricks. Cole has been taking the first-team snaps so far this offseason, but Kendricks was the team’s second-round pick this year and was considered to be one of the best middle linebackers in the draft.

Cole has gotten starting opportunities as both an outside linebacker and middle linebacker in the past because of injuries. While on the field, he has shown that he has a nose for the football and always seems to be making plays but he has never outright won a starting job. Whatever the reason, the Vikings seem to be willing to give him every opportunity this offseason to earn the starting spot.

The only thing that seems to be standing in Cole’s way of earning that starting spot is Kendricks. He has had a good offseason so far working with the second team, and has shown that his strength is in pass coverage. At 6-0, 232 pounds, Kendricks is considered a little undersized and that could hurt his chances to beat out Cole for the starting job because the Vikings will be trying to improve their run defense, which ranked No. 25 at the end of the season in 2014.

The scenario that seems to be the most likely at this point in time is that Cole will be the starting inside linebacker but Kendricks will come in during nickel situations. Training camp and the preseason will really show where these two line up on the depth chart.

Either one of these players has a good chance to climb this list and even make an impact in the NFL, but right now there are too many question marks surrounding them.

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