It’s hard to imagine the Minnesota Vikings preparing for life after veteran linebacker Chad Greenway, but it seems as though that time will soon be upon the organization. There was a lot of speculation last offseason that Greenway was going to hang up his cleats after the 2015 season, but he made it clear he wants to return for 2016.
The Vikings have already expressed interest in re-signing the veteran free agent, but sooner or later he will retire and the Vikings will need to find a way to replace him. The 2016 draft could very well be where they try to find his replacement as the organization met with Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee at the NFL Scouting Combine for a formal interview.
Lee joins a group of linebackers lately that aren’t like your father’s linebackers, as he seems to rely more on his speed than his strength. He is very good in pass coverage and can rush the passer effectively, but is not much of a punishing hitter like most teams like their linebackers to be.
The Ohio State product fits more into the role of a weakside linebacker, which is the role the Vikings will need to fill once Greenway retires, so this pick could make sense for them at No. 23 overall. Like Anthony Barr, Lee doesn’t have much experience at linebacker as he played quarterback and defensive back in high school, so having a year to sit behind a player like Greenway to further learn the position and develop his skills could be beneficial.
Coming out of college Lee was thought of as being a small linebacker, and the combine proved that. He measured in at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, which may be a little heavier than some expected him to be, but it still made him one of the lighter linebackers in this year’s class.
“I can play at that weight. I have really no concerns about it, to be honest with you,” he said. “As long as I’m able to play fast, that’s all that matters to me.”
That lack of size also showed up in the strength portion of the combine, as Lee was only able to do 17 reps of the 225-pound bench press. There were only six players that chose to lift who put up fewer reps than him, and to put it into perspective the No. 1 performance by a linebacker was 30 reps by Clemson’s B.J. Goodson.
However, that lighter weight transferred well for him in terms of speed. As previously mentioned, Lee likes to utilize his speed while on the field, and the combine showed that he has plenty of it. He was clocked running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, the fastest among linebackers in Indianapolis. That time was even faster than a good chunk of the wide receivers in this year’s draft and you can be sure a defensive-minded coach like Mike Zimmer would love to get his hands on that type of speed.
The linebacker was also able to show off his athleticism in other ways as well. In the vertical jump, which is a drill Zimmer likes to use to measure explosiveness, Lee recorded a 35½-inch vertical. That was the fifth-highest among linebackers at the combine. He also recorded the longest long jump at his position with a distance of 133.0 inches.
In the 20-yard-shuttle, a drill used to measure lateral quickness and the ability to maintain speed through a transition, Lee recorded the third-fastest time among the linebackers, 4.20 seconds. This is a drill important for linebackers, who are often asked to track opponents from side to side and often have to stop and go a lot while maneuvering through the traffic in the middle of the field.
Since Zimmer has taken over as the team’s head coach, the Vikings have proven that they are OK taking an undersized linebacker and that they are more than willing to let their first-round pick sit for a year.
Last year’s first-round pick, Trae Waynes, sat on the sideline for a majority of the season to further develop his skills, so it’s very possible they choose to do the same thing this season. They also drafted Eric Kendricks, an undersized middle linebacker, last season so they proved that as long as a player is effective on the field they don’t care about the size as much.
It is going to be hard for any player to replace a veteran like Greenway, both on and off the field, but this could be the season where the Vikings decide to try.