Positional Analysis: Outside Linebacker

The Vikings' style of defense relies on its outside linebackers to make plays and the team has a pair of solid starters in that role, but depth behind them is a little uncertain at this point.

For any Tampa-2 defense to be effective, its outside linebackers have to be active and instinctive. The Vikings enter the 2008 season with a solid defensive core at OLB that will only benefit from the signing of DE Jared Allen – leaving them available to do their jobs without the requirement of being blitzers to apply pressure on quarterbacks.

How the Vikings have assembled their OLB corps has been diverse and, in its second full season together, big things are expected. That process got set back a year in 2006 when first-round draft pick Chad Greenway was injured in the first game of the preseason. He missed his entire first season and set back his progress, but he flashed why he was a first-round draft pick last year and is expected to be a major contributor to what promises to be a stronger Vikings defense.

While Greenway is a player on the rise, Ben Leber has established himself as a solid starter on the strong side. Leber has proved to be a sure tackler and, while not blessed with the greatest speed, he has extremely good instincts and makes tackles consistently when he gets a player in his sights.

Last year, the starting three linebackers were the team's leader tacklers, with Greenway second at 130 tackles and Leber third at 88 (Leber was often out of the game during passing downs).

The biggest question for the Vikings will be what happens if either Greenway or Leber gets injured? The Vikings allowed Dontarrious Thomas to sign with San Francisco in free agency, and with all of their free-agent signings, the Vikings did not specifically address outside linebacker in either the draft or free agency. They did sign former Dolphin Derrick Pope, but he seems to be more of a fit at middle linebacker. Depth on outside is somewhat of a concern because the primary backups are viewed as special teams aces, but not necessarily starting linebacker material.

Heath Farwell has been a special teams MVP and Vinny Ciurciu was one of the few free agents signed by the Vikings in early 2007. Both have earned roster spots by displaying their value on special teams, but neither has shown has been able to make the big jump to full-time playing duty on defense.

The team did add a couple of intriguing undrafted rookies following the draft – J. Leman of Illinois and Erin Henderson, the younger brother of starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, of Maryland – and they have a holdover from 2007 rookie free agency, David Herron. But all three of those young players have yet to prove themselves at the NFL level.

The Vikings are counting on Greenway and Leber to combine both athleticism and talent to succeed in the Tampa-2 defense. With an increased focus on generating a pass rush, the role of the linebackers in 2008 will be more in the playmaking realm as opposed to being forced to cover backs and receivers longer due to the lack of a pass rush in 2007. While probably the weakest link of the defense, the Vikings have talent at the position and, whether viewed as overachievers or not, this unit is expected to be better in 2008 than it was in 2007 thanks to another year of experience.

That being said, if Greenway or Leber goes down to injury, there is very little room for error if Farwell or Ciurciu are forced into the starting lineup.

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