Head coach Mike Tice and director of college scouting Scott Studwell made no attempt to hide their hesitation about the team's youth at linebacker after the draft, and this weekend is being viewed as a time to evaluate the young blood to see if they need to sign a veteran free agent or not.
Overall, the team is pleased with its talent level after two years of upgrades through free agency, but …
"If there's anything we'd keep our eye on, it's an established linebacker," director of pro scouting Paul Wiggin said. "We've got to see what these young guys look like this weekend. There could be a guy or two that falls through the cracks that we could look into. It seems to happen invariably at all positions."
From two years ago, when they had concerns at nearly all positions to the Vikings' current situation, things have been going in the right direction with talent. But while they feel like they have upgraded their talent and athleticism, experience does matter at linebacker.
"You don't want to go in (to the season) with a problem. We don't know if we have a problem at linebacker, but you just don't know because that was the one thing we didn't get resolved (with a veteran in free agency)," Wiggin said. "We went into free agency knowing we needed help at corner, and we've always known that. We knew we needed help at right end, we couldn't afford to get the right end (Jevon Kearse). … The linebacking situation was another need. In our so-called Christmas list, there was a wide receiver, so we did kind of resolve that a little bit with (Marcus) Robinson. Then as we approached the draft, we had linebacker and a true lineman as needs. I think Scott and those guys did a great job of getting the defensive line thing resolved. It fell good for us in the draft."
The Vikings plan on starting first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze at right defensive end and rotating third-round draft pick Darrion Scott at left defensive end. But without an NFL start between second-year pro E.J. Henderson and rookie second-draft pick Dontarrious Thomas, experience at linebacker is a concern.
"Linebacking is a little more complex at the next level. You don't just see a lot of guys coming in and taking over," Wiggin said. "A Lavar Arrington or somebody might, but you don't see it a lot. We'll just have to see how these guys look. We may have resolved that in the draft, but we just don't know that yet.
"If you look at this football team, we're probably better at defensive line than we've been in years. This isn't (Chris) Doleman, (Keith) Millard and Henry Thomas, but it's better than it's been in years. Our linebacking is still young, but our secondary is better than it's been in years."
The Vikings had an interest in former Denver linebacker Ian Gold, but before bringing in a veteran they wanted to evaluate their youth at this weekend's minicamp. Gold recently signed with Tampa Bay.
"He's a great player, and he was certainly a consideration," Wiggin said. "He's an instinctive player, he's quick. He's probably what (Mike) Nattiel might become size-wise and that sort of thing. Nattiel is not there yet."
Now the Vikings are left with two options: Go into the season with the corps they have at linebacker right now or go searching for a free agent. Two names were mentioned on the free-agent market.
The first and more realistic candidate is Keith Newman, a linebacker that defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell has coached before. Newman was released last month by Atlanta and worked with Cottrell in Buffalo. He is an outside linebacker that might be able to play either the weak side or the strong side.
"He's a pretty good player, and Ted's had him from before," Wiggin said of Newman.
The other is a much bigger name but would also command a much bigger salary.
"Jeremiah Trotter is out there, that's a cap casualty. He's going to be available," Wiggin said. "They've been trying to trade him for a long time, but he's a Mike (middle linebacker) and we're kind of wanting to bring our young guy (Henderson) along.
"Sometimes these guys fall through the cracks and they have to come into a different way of thinking. … Often these guys come in for a lot less than they were used to making. He's been a big-time guy before. I don't think he was an elite player (last year), but he's a big, strong collision guy. Somebody said they thought he was going to end up back with the Eagles, which is a possibility."
While Trotter is known for his play at middle linebacker, some in the Vikings organization believe he is athletic enough to play outside linebacker in Cottrell's system. Trotter was a name some observers wanted the organization to pursue two years ago when he was a free agent with Philadelphia, but after two years in Washington he is likely to be a June 1 cap casualty if the Redskins can't find a trading partner for him.
The Vikings don't know yet if they'll even want to bring in another linebacker, but a player of Trotter's resume would give the team a legitimate upgrade at each level of the defense this offseason, with Udeze at the defensive line and Antoine Winfield in the secondary. Only the team's post-minicamp evaluations will tell them if they need to make another move.
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