Upgrading the defensive side of the ball has been one of the primary focuses for Mike Zimmer since he became head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. More specifically than that, one of the positions he really focused on in the beginning was linebacker. Now, linebacker is one of the deepest positions on their roster and the coaching staff is going to have to make some tough decisions when it’s time to make cuts (or find potential trades).
Expected starters: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Chad Greenway
Greenway was originally drafted in the first round back in 2006, but did not get to play until the 2007 season because he had to recover from an ACL injury suffered in the 2006 preseason. He has become a staple in the Vikings defense since his return and now he appears to be ready for one more run.
He recorded a career-low 68 tackles last season and added 2.5 sacks, one interception - returned for a touchdown - and one pass deflection. Many thought 2015 was going to be his final season, but he made it clear he was coming back after the team came so close to advancing in the playoffs. This year is setting up to be his final run in the NFL.
Barr was Zimmer’s very first draft pick as Vikings head coach. The team selected him No. 9 overall, which some experts thought of as a stretch. Barr measures 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and there has never been any doubt about his athletic ability; the doubt came from the fact that the Vikings run a 4-3 defense and Barr’s only experience at linebacker was as a pass-rushing expert for two years in college. Before that he played on the offensive side of the ball.
The Vikings took a calculated risk on Barr and it has paid off so far. He recorded 68 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and seven pass deflections last season. That performance earned him a grade of 93.4 from Pro Football Focus, a sports analytics site that grades players based on their on-field performance, which made Barr the second-highest rated linebacker in the NFL.
The biggest issue for Barr during his first two NFL seasons has been staying healthy. He missed four games his rookie year and two last season. The Vikings need him to remain healthy because they are simply a different team when he isn’t on the field. He’s not off to a good start this offseason, though, after missing all of organized team activities and only participating in positional drills during minicamp.
Kendricks was Barr’s teammate in college and the Vikings reunited the two by taking him in the second round of the 2015 draft. At 6-0, 232 pounds, he is a little undersized to be playing linebacker in the NFL, but he makes it work with his athleticism, smarts and feel for the game. He didn’t become the starter until after the team’s bye week when Gerald Hodges got traded to the San Francisco 49ers, but he did begin his rookie season as one of the two nickel linebackers.
Kendricks missed two games with a rib injury during the regular season but still managed to lead the team in tackles with 92, while also recording four sacks and one pass defensed. There has been some talk of Kendricks eventually moving to the weak side as Greenway’s replacement, but it all depends on how well he continues to play in the middle of the defense and how well players like Brothers and Lamur fit into Zimmer’s defense.
Keep an eye on
Barr’s health: As mentioned earlier, Barr has struggled staying healthy so far in his career. He missed time during training camp last season and has already missed time during OTAs and minicamp this offseason with an undisclosed injury. Zimmer does not appear to be worried since he said he’ll only start to worry if they begin to miss time during training camp, but with that starting on Friday, Barr’s presence on the field will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
Battle of the backups: The Vikings are not going to be able to keep all of the current linebackers they have on their roster and that will lead to some talented players getting cut. A player like Ganus may be able to sneak onto their practice squad, but they are going to have to cut a couple other players once they narrow their roster down to 53.
This could be the most intriguing positional battle on the field, even though the starters are just about set. Watts, Robinson, Ganus, Cole, Brothers and Lamur will be the players all fighting for the expected three backup spots and there won’t be room for all of them.
How much Greenway has left in the tank: Greenway is entering his 11th NFL season and there was already a clear dip in his production last season. Many thought that he was going to retire a year ago, but he wanted to come back and make another run and a Super Bowl title.
He has been given the starting spot during OTAs and minicamp, and will likely have it to start training camp. But with the amount of young talent the Vikings have on their roster, there is plenty of competition to keep him fighting for playing time.
Barr, Kendricks and Greenway will be named the starters with Robinson, Brothers, Cole and Lamur the top contenders for the three immediate backups, with Ganus a likely addition on the practice squad. It would be hard to let a player like Cole go because of what he brings to special teams and the versatility he possesses, so if they can find a way to keep him on board, they will.
From the sounds of it, Barr will be ready to go at the start of training camp, but don’t be surprised if the coaches continue to take things slow with him. He is an important part of the defense and they will want to be careful with him as he continues to heal.