With names like LaVar Arrington and Julian Peterson flying around at the start of free agency, the Vikings' signing of Ben Leber didn't cause a great stir in Viking Nation. But, internally, the Vikings had Leber earmarked as one of their primary free agents to target.
It didn't take long for Leber to get signed, either, as he agreed to a five-year, $20 million contract, including a $4 million signing bonus, less than 18 hours into the free agent signing period.
Leber expects it to take much longer to get everyone acclimated to each other and a new system of defense for the Minnesota Makeover: Vikings Edition.
"I think everybody's a little rusty. We're trying to get our reads back and, communication – I think that's the biggest key for us right now. Everybody talking, everybody getting on the same page, I think we did a pretty good job of that," Leber said after a few minicamp practices.
Leber is expected to assume the starting role on the strong side, but in those early veteran minicamp days, everything was new. New coaches, new teammates, new facilities.
The former San Diego Charger was just trying to get one point across to coaches in the five sessions the players had with the coaching staff, just trying to show the coaches "work ethic, get off the field and do everything right," he said. "Even though I make mistakes out there, everybody is going to make mistakes. Do everything 100 percent. They understand that everybody is going to make mistakes, be in the wrong places and be in the wrong fits at times. What we've got to do as new guys is show them that when we make mistakes we can still go out there and learn from those mistakes the next day."
Unlike many of the Vikings' current linebacker corps, Leber has solid NFL experience, yet is still entering what is generally considered the prime time of an NFL player's career. He has started 52 career games in his 57 appearances during his tenure in San Diego, where he helped in a dramatic defensive turnaround and has been part of Chargers defenses that were solid against the run, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense in 2005 and No. 3 in 2004.
However, in 2005 Leber suffered a foot injury that limited his offseason work and eventually led rookie sensation Shawne Merriman to overtake the starting position. After that, Leber's playing time was limited.
He finished 2005 with a career-low 22 tackles and two sacks. In his three previous seasons in San Diego, he had 49, 75 and 58 tackles and now has 12 career sacks. As a rookie (when he had 49 tackles), he started 14 games, had five sacks and was earned all-rookie honors after being a third-round draft choice.
Leber says his foot feels great, but the Vikings were cautious to not overwork him in the two-a-day minicamp routine they employed. Instead, the team was busy switching linebackers around in the rotation.
"I really did feel bad for my guys. The tempo is quick and we've got five guys, so the rotation is pretty slim pickings. They were pretty winded out there," Leber said.
The coaches were testing their linebackers to see how they reacted on the fly and handled adverse conditions. It was a test, even for a four-year veteran of the NFL like Leber.
"You've got your mind set one time on strongside and the next time you're at Will (weakside). It's a whole different mindset. I think you want to go and show the coaches you can do that, you can flip-flop and switch off Will to Sam (strongside) or even Mike (middle)," Leber said.
"I think what they're trying to tell us right now is that nobody is set in stone. Everybody is penciled in at positions, but everything is subject to change. They're just trying to get the best guys in the best positions."
Two weeks after the draft, in mid-May, the Vikings will start to hone in on their linebacker rotation, and the safest linebacker bet is that Ben Leber will be starting on the strong side. After that, the prognostication percentage in the linebacker corps goes way down.
"Ben is really a solid football player," Vikings coach Brad Childress said after Leber was signed. "He was an anchor as an outside linebacker (with the Chargers). He has the flexibility to play outside linebacker on either side, both off the line of scrimmage and on it. His best football is still ahead of him."
That last statement could be true for many of the team's linebackers. There are no Petersons or Arringtons on the Purple roster, and the Vikings are prepared to find out what they've got with their current linebackers and what the NFL draft, less than two weeks away, might bring.
Leber Tested Physically, Mentally in Practice
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