For the Minnesota Vikings, size – specifically, height – matters, even on the defensive side of the ball.
Tall defensive linemen knock down passes and big cornerbacks are better able to handle the taller, more physical receivers that have been making their way into the NFL. But even in the middle of the defense, height is a desired trait.
“I like tall linebackers because they can get in the throwing lane,” said linebackers coach Adam Zimmer.
But the Vikings haven’t let that desired trait be the overriding factor in determining whether or not they draft a linebacker or a sign a new one in free agency. This year, the team drafted its second-shortest linebacker, Kentrell Brothers. Perhaps the success of Kendricks in his rookie season allowed the Vikings to see good things can come in smaller sizes.
“I don’t think it’s a detriment to him being a little undersized. He’s 245 pounds. It’s not like he’s 227 and 6 foot,” Zimmer said. “I’ll go back to when I was in Kansas City. We didn’t draft Navarro Bowman because he was a half an inch too short. Well, he’s a hell of a football player. Sometimes you’ve got to overlook some things when what you see on tape is a good football player.”
But before drafting Brothers, the Vikings also signed one of their tallest linebackers in free agency. Emmanuel Lamur is 6-foot-4. That’s one inch shorter than the listed heights of Barr and Audie Cole, but Lamur’s slender build makes him appear taller.
“All these guys are tall. I came here and I’m like, wow, these boys are tall,” Lamur said. “I love those guys. They’re like my brothers. We joke around, we have fun, but we get the job done and when we come out (on the practice field) it’s all about business.”
Longer legs can help generate greater distance covered, an huge asset in the coverage aspect of linebacker duties. It’s what Lamur considers a strength of his as he competes for playing time and brings with him experience in Mike Zimmer’s system from their days together in Cincinnati.
“He’s a heck of an athlete. He can really run,” Adam Zimmer said. “I coached (defensive backs) when I was in Cincinnati so I didn’t get to work with him firsthand. I know what type of athlete and what type of speed and talent he possesses.”
The business of scouting is often reliant on numbers, and height is one of the factors considered when projecting success at the NFL level. The Vikings, however, made it a point to not let a lack of height completely deter them from drafting a productive player who is under 6-foot-2.
Being shorter can help linebackers gain leverage when taking on blocks or getting low when tackling.
When it comes to special teams, height can be an advantage in blocking kicks, but Brothers excelled in that area for Missouri despite being shorter than the prototypical linebacker.
“We always put a plus on them if they have special teams value. I know Coach (Mike) Priefer looked at him and he liked what he saw,” Zimmer said of Brothers. “The more you can do, and every linebacker has to play special teams because there’s 45 active (players) on game day. You’re going to have to have guys that can play special teams. If you can do it well and have an impact on the game that way, it’s really going to help.”
At 6 feet, Kendricks had a very strong rookie season, and Brothers led the nation in tackles per game at 6-foot-1.
Yet, while shorter linebackers might have an advantage in getting leverage, height helps in coverage.
“You mess up the quarterback’s vision, of course – throw the ball over their head and all that. But it takes a lot of span, wing span, that’s the plus side of it,” Lamur said. “You’ve got to get lower as a taller guy. That’s one of the disadvantages we have compared to Eric Kendricks or Kentrell Brothers. The upside to that is taking up a lot more room, use your length shedding off blocks.”