Since Mike Zimmer has taken over as the Minnesota Vikings head coach in 2014 he has seemed to make improving the linebacker corps a point of emphasis. With his first-ever first-round selection as an NFL head coach he picked UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr at No. 9 overall. Even though the team was in need of a quarterback that offseason, Zimmer decided to take a franchise-type player on the defensive side of the ball - and then the team later traded back into the first round to select Teddy Bridgewater.
He also drafted linebacker Brandon Watts in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. Watts has not come close to having the same kind of impact that Barr has, but he has made some appearances in games when the starters got injured.
Zimmer then continued to improve his group of linebackers in 2015 when he drafted Barr’s college teammate, Eric Kendricks, in the second round. Kendricks played well as a rookie, taking over the middle linebacker role after the first couple weeks and ending the season as the team’s leading tackler. It is still unclear whether the Vikings will keep Kendricks at middle linebacker or eventually move him to the weak side, but it is clear that he has solidified himself as a key part of the defense.
The Vikings would once again take a second linebacker in the seventh round in 2015, as they used their final pick in the draft to select Edmond Robinson. He was a very raw player coming out of the Division II school Newberry College, but he had great size and athleticism, which the coaching staff believed they could mold into a talented player.
Robinson was not expected to make an immediate impact as a rookie, but he was forced to play in a couple games due to injuries to the starters. He filled the role of Barr’s backup and, while he did not have the same kind of impact that Barr does on the field, he was able to hold his own.
The Vikings continued their trend of drafting linebackers in 2016 as they selected Kentrell Brothers in the fifth round. Brothers does not have the top-end speed or athleticism that many players in the NFL possess, but he has very good instincts and a great understanding for the game and how it should be played.
He is being viewed as an inside linebacker, but it is still unclear when he will see the field, if he does at all in 2016. There are a lot of talented player ahead of him on the depth chart and for him to see the field, Chad Greenway would have to lose his starting job and then have Kendricks slide over to the weak side, thus opening up the middle linebacker spot.
The Vikings then selected Stephen Weatherly in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. He is a very versatile player that can play as a linebacker or put his hand on the ground and play the role of a defensive end. While things may change in the future, at this point in time it appears the coaches view him as more of a defensive end.
All of the youth at linebacker that the Vikings have been adding to their roster is going to be create plenty of competition and it could make it harder for some of the veteran players to make the team after training camp. Greenway, Audie Cole, Emmanuel Lamur and Travis Lewis will all have their work cut out for them this offseason. There are only so many spots available on a 53-man roster and at this point it seems likely that at least one of them, along with some of the previously mentioned late-round picks, will be cut before the start of the regular season.
It will be interesting to see how the Vikings continue to approach the linebacker position in future drafts. They have done a good job at providing starters and solid depth in the first three years under Zimmer, which means it might be time for them to shift their attention away from linebacker and to another position on the roster in upcoming drafts.