Greg Biekert isn't baby-sitting any more.
Like last season, Biekert is still the Vikings' middle linebacker. He still makes the play calls. All his defensive teammates still listen to him bark out instructions on the field. But he isn't shepherding a wayward flock this season.
This season, Biekert's second in purple, the Vikings have upgraded in all three defensive areas — up front, at linebacker, and in the secondary. No longer is he being asked to arrive in Minnesota five days before the regular season starts and instantly be the pilot of the defense.
"I'm learning only the new guys' names this year," Biekert said. "Last year, I was trying to learn everybody's names. Coming in this year, I know everybody. That's been the really big thing for me. It's been great."
The personnel improvements on defense were obvious before the season even started. The Vikings added first-round draft pick Kevin Williams to the front four. Former Packers end Billy Lyon gives the Vikings line more experience. The secondary is revamped. Denard Walker and Ken Irvin added more stability at cornerback.
Yet one single move at linebacker may have been the most significant.
The signing of free agent Chris Claiborne and moving him to the weak side, where he can be afforded more room to roam and make plays, instantly made the defense better. Henri Crockett plays strongside linebacker and Biekert, of course, is in the middle. Nick Rogers moved from the starting lineup into an active reserve role. And rather than tapping the resources of vagabonds like Jim Nelson, Lemanski Hall and Patrick Chukwurah, the Vikings' pool of reserves is loaded with talent and potential in second-round draft picks E.J. Henderson (2003), and Raonall Smith (2002), who was on the IR last season.
Playing with this group of linebackers only enhances Biekert's ability to be a leader on the field.
"He does a lot of good things for us," Claiborne said. "Me being a new guy, I've had to adapt to the defense and playing a new position. (Biekert) makes my job a lot easier. I just go out there and play."
Obviously, it's early in the season, but already Biekert notices an abundance of improvement.
"When you have guys who are going to do what they're asked to do on every play, there's only going to be a mistake here or a mistake there. That's human nature, people are going to make mistakes," Biekert said. "But knowing guys are going to be where they need to be 95 percent of the time just frees you mentally to go out there and have fun.
"If you're worrying about another guy, it affects how you play. If you're the one helping them out, and now you have to come back and do what you need to do at linebacker, that's not good. It's nice to make my calls and know they're going to hear it and they're going to know what I'm talking about. They're going to do what they need to do and I can just go out and play."
What surprises Biekert is that in the offseason the Vikings personnel department didn't have to rob Peter to pay Paul. In other words, the Vikings didn't have to play budgetball in their pursuit of a free-agent linebacker, because they had already signed a couple of defensive backs.
"You look at our defense and it's hard to do, but this organization upgraded across the board on defense," Biekert said. "Usually when you upgrade on one area, it hurts another area. For us to get better in all three areas defensively says a lot about the job this organization did in the offseason."
Or maybe it says a lot about how much the defense struggled a year ago.
"I don't have that mindset," Biekert said. "I look at it as we're getting better. Any area we get better, I look at it as great. If you have a nickel and somebody gives you another nickel, you don't just say, ‘Well, it's only a nickel.' You're doubling your money. I look at it that way. Any improvements we make help us out tremendously."
Biekert Upbeat About Upgrades
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