Different Concerns Arise At Linebacker

The Vikings had what most observers consider a great draft, and they added two linebackers in the first five rounds. Still, Scott Studwell and Mike Tice voiced some concerns about the position.

A roster without holes. That is the thought that was thrown at Vikings coach Mike Tice after the draft.

It's an idealistic concept, but one that would obviously be stretching the truth — no NFL team is without needs, even a defending Super Bowl champion like the New England Patriots sitting on more high-round picks than the dregs of the league.

The Vikings have unquestionably made some very long strides in filling the holes in a roster that Tice said two years ago looked like a shotgun blast because there were so many holes to fill. Yet there remains areas of concern.

"I really think our depth at certain positions is very, very good. Other positions need some help," Tice said. "When you get to college free agency and you only have to add two defensive backs, I think you've come a long way in your secondary."

The Vikings entered the draft with defensive line and linebacker as the two major units needing upgrades. Two of their first three picks went to defensive linemen, and linebackers were selected in rounds two and five, but linebacker remains an area of some concern.

"We're there. We're close. When you have to add as many players as we did at linebacker — Scott (Studwell) made a really good point, it scares you because you're getting really young," Tice said. "When you have to add all that purple and green (rookies) at linebacker, that means you're young and that's not very good. But if we're going to have it at any position, I'd rather have it on defense because sometimes you just say, ‘See that thing (the ball), go get it.'"

Although Chris Claiborne, the starting stronside linebacker, is entering his sixth NFL season, he will turn 26 years old just before the season starts — and he is the veteran of the group.

At middle linebacker, E.J. Henderson, last year's second-round pick, has no NFL starts, And his primary backup is expected to be Rod Davis, the rookie chosen in the fifth round. Despite Davis being an ultra-productive linebacker at Southern Mississippi with 526 tackles in four years, there was a reason he lasted until the fifth round.

"To me, he wasn't nearly as consistent this year as he was in the past," Studwell, the team's director of college scouting, said of Davis. "But people with his kind of numbers … are not by accident. (His production is because of) speed, it's by great instincts and it's by desire that you get to the ball — and he's got a bit of everything there. He's got a good feel for the game and he makes plays. I'm a big production guy."

The expected weakside linebacker is Dontarrious Thomas, the second-round pick this year with no NFL experience, and, if not him, Mike Nattiel, last year's sixth-round pick with no NFL starts.

Two of the three starting linebackers will have no NFL starts, but the Vikings still feel like they have upgraded at the position. Experience is a true concern, but athleticism has gotten better with one first-round pick (Claiborne) and two second-round picks (Thomas and Henderson), and there are other advantages.

"We've upgraded ourselves athletically, but along with that I think you also upgrade your special teams and you upgrade your defensive speed," Studwell said. "We're faster, we're more athletic, we're talented. We're young, but that's OK. Young and hungry is good. I think we have a good mix. I think we have enough veteran players here (to mentor). … I think the blend is really, really good."

Said Tice: "Having young players is OK. It's like Scott mentioned, and I'm not a linebacker, but it's really tough to be young in the offensive line and it's tough to be really young at linebacker. We're a little young at linebacker, it's a little scary. But if it's a hole, it might not an athletic or talent hole, it might an experience hole."

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