For now, the Minnesota Vikings will enter the 2016 season with the same three linebackers starting this season as the ones that finished the 2015 season.
Chad Greenway is by far the veteran of bunch, with his experience viewed as a “plus” among a relatively young group, but Greenway may be reduced to more of a two-down role this year, as was the plan last year. However, the Vikings and Greenway found out that plans can be quickly scuttled by injuries.
In the Vikings’ first game of the 2015 season, they were in their nickel defense only about 20 percent of the time during their loss at San Francisco. Anthony Barr, Greenway and Gerald Hodges all saw at least 89 percent of the defensive snaps while then-rookie Eric Kendricks was only in for 11 percent of the snaps.
By the time the Vikings returned from their bye week a month later, Hodges was traded and Kendricks was a full-time player. But during the season, Barr and Kendricks each missed two games due to injury while Greenway was available for every game.
That’s why depth at linebacker is so valuable, and the Vikings have the versatility to make it work in case of injuries this year. When Kendricks was drafted last year, head coach Mike Zimmer indicated that Kendricks could eventually slide to outside linebacker, and that’s still the case if needed.
“Anything is a possibility. Eric is, right now I think he’s best at Mike (middle) linebacker, but he’d be a hell of a Will (weakside) linebacker too,” position coach Adam Zimmer said last month. “He got more and more comfortable throughout the year. The last two games were his best of the season for him – Seattle and Green Bay. I like where Eric is at right now, but we’re going to try and get the best three linebackers on the field and whichever way we can do that, we’re going to do that.”
For now, that means Barr, Kendricks and Greenway as long as all three are healthy. But Barr has been held out of organized team activities the last three weeks with an unspecified injury, limiting him to a practice observer. To date, Kendricks has been kept inside at middle linebacker with Edmond Robinson and Audie Cole largely taking the snaps that would normally be Barr’s with the first-team defense.
Yet in the future – and that might not include this year – Kendricks has the skill set to play outside.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast. As an outside guy as the Will in our system it’s mostly the strongside guy, he’s protected by the three-technique so he can flow to the ball a little bit more and do what he does best – track the ball carrier in open space,” Adam Zimmer said. “He’d be better in coverage when he’s covering down on guys, so there’s a lot of things that play to his strength.”
Kendricks led the 2015 Vikings with 105 tackles, according to coaches’ film review, and also led them with four sacks.
“He’s going to have a great chance to compete. He’s a heck of an athlete. He can really run. I’m looking forward to seeing him,” Adam Zimmer said. “I coached DBs when I was in Cincinnati so I didn’t get to work with him firsthand (but) I know what type of athlete and what type of speed and talent he possesses.”
Lamur is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, and Zimmer likes tall linebackers, but the long-term future of the linebacker position resides with Kendricks, Barr and a third player that may or may not currently reside on the roster to take Greenway’s spot when he retires.
[FOR RECENT PODCASTS, CLICK HERE]
For Kendricks and Barr, who are currently entering their second and third seasons in the NFL, respectively, the focus for the offseason is now on the finer points of the game.
“Mostly attention to detail, like alignments and being in the right spot at the right time, more perfection in what they do,” Zimmer said. “They’re very instinctive players. They’re playmakers. They play hard on game day. It’s just fine-tuning aspects of the game that they haven’t seen a whole lot yet. I have a tape of them – plays that you can get better. We’re going to sit down and watch those as this offseason goes along and we’re going to try and get them better than they were.
“… There’s a lot they can work on, and there’s a lot Chad can work on and he’s 12 years in. You’re never perfect. Otherwise, we as coaches wouldn’t have jobs.”