The Minnesota Vikings have been pleased with the production at middle linebacker that it has received from Eric Kendricks, who has led the team in tackles in each of his first two seasons and proved he can be a playmaker despite being undersized for prototype NFL middle linebackers.
The bigger issue is depth. Kendricks’ top backup, Audie Cole, is an unrestricted free agent and has proved to be a solid situational player and special teamer.
If the Vikings do venture into free agency to solidify the depth at MLB, there are several players who might garner some consideration – with a couple of exceptions.
New England’s Dont’a Hightower may be pushing a new contract approaching $10 million a season, so clearly he isn’t in the Vikings’ line of sight. The same goes for Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons, who will likely get a multi-year deal at about $5-6 million a year
But, there are some others who might get a longer look in the Vikings’ free agent war room.
Perry Riley – Coming off a one-year, $760,000 deal with the Raiders, he performed well last season, playing about 70 percent of snaps.
Kevin Minter – A full-time starter the last two seasons in Arizona, he is likely going to get paid, but the Cardinals have other more pressing free agents. His price tag may be too high, but the talent is there.
Sio Moore – A two-year starter with the Raiders in 2013-14, he spent 2016 with three different teams – Indianapolis, Kansas City and Arizona. If nothing else, he’s well-versed in other defenses and, in the eight games he played last season, he recorded 65 tackles, so he has proved to be dependable when he’s on the field.
Zach Brown – He was in Buffalo on a one-year deal for $1.25 million, but, after recording 147 tackles, his asking price is going up … way up. The Vikings might have some interest, but won’t hang around long if his salary demands get up in the $4-5 million-a-year range.
Malcolm Smith – He just finished a two-year, $7 million deal with the Raiders. The former part-time Seahawk has recorded 225 tackles in the last two seasons. While he will likely be looking to be a full-time starter somewhere, if the market is tight, he could give Mike Zimmer another defensive weapon that could be moved around situationally.
Sean Spence – Coming off a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Tennessee, the 26-year old has been a solid role player with both the Steelers and Titans and could be had at a reasonable price.
Josh Mauga – He missed the entire 2016 season after starting the previous two years with the Chiefs. If his health checks out, he has the potential to be of value to a lot of teams.
Stephen Tulloch – A starter for the Lions for five years, he was miscast with the Eagles, where he had just seven tackles in 12 games played. His experience in the NFC North could be valuable because he and the Vikings are innately familiar with one another.
Manti Te’o – He was able to shake off the fake girlfriend scandal, but injuries have been a major issue for him. In four seasons in San Diego, he missed 26 of 64 games due to injury, which not only will lower his asking price, but lessen the amount of interested teams.
Sean Weatherspoon – A full-time starter in his final three seasons with the Falcons, he spent 2015 in Arizona as a backup and played in just four games last year on his return to Atlanta. If he’s willing to take an incentive contract, he could have some interest to the Vikings.
Brandon Spikes – He lost his starting job with Buffalo last season but has a solid pedigree as a starter with both the Bills and Patriots. He turns 30 in September and could be a valued backup since he’s becoming accustomed to a part-time role.
Gerald Hodges – He was a starter for the Vikings prior to being traded to San Francisco, so, at a minimum, there is some familiarity there.
If Cole is re-signed, the Vikings likely would be set at middle linebacker with Kendricks, Cole and 2016 rookie Kentrell Brothers. If not, they may look to add a veteran player, but they won’t be in a big hurry to do that.