Linebackers Also On Wish List

The Vikings have spoken publicly about upgrading the defensive line and defensive backs, but a player personnel expert believes they have serious questions at linebacker, too. And we're hearing a few names that they could be calling in less than two weeks.

The Vikings defense, much maligned and often criticized, will undergo a facelift during this off-season. Many names will change, numerous faces will be left on the outside looking in. Much by plan, Mike Tice will be changing Minnesota.

The evaluation process the team is conducting will determine the course the Vikings will partake into free agency and the 2003 NFL draft. This lengthy process is as critical as any the Vikings will enter into in the rebuilding process of the team.

As we have noted in a prior column, there is no doubt that the Vikings will attempt to add quality and depth along the defensive line. The organization has openly spoken of the necessity of improved play from this position. Another area of the roster that has glaring weaknesses is at the linebacker position.

One bright spot within the linebacking corps could be that of middle linebacker Greg Biekert. Biekert was signed by the Vikings after he was released by the Oakland Raiders in a salary cap reduction move by the team. At age 34 and the best linebacker on the roster, the Vikings believe that Biekert has another good year or two in him. This alone should state the situation the Vikings face in upgrading the position.

A source and players personnel expert tells the column his thoughts on the linebacker corps of the Minnesota Vikings.

"Biekert played fairly well last season after a slow start. Coming over from Oakland, it took him some time to work into the scheme and get accustomed physically to playing the game on the artificial turf. Although he has lost a step, he (Biekert) can still play the game, but Minnesota must address the issue at middle linebacker, as well as the weak and strong side linebacker positions. If the Vikings do not upgrade these positions and Biekert runs out of gas, they (Vikings) are in serious trouble."

"Minnesota drafted Raonall Smith with the thought in mind that he would be a tremendous weak-side linebacker. He has lights-out speed and athleticism, along with the ability to take a ball-carrier down. Despite season-ending shoulder surgery, the Vikings are extremely high on Smith and plan to have him ready to compete for the weak-side linebacker position in training camp.

"Henri Crockett had been a middle linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, prior to signing with the Vikings in free agency. He did qualm when Minnesota signed Greg Biekert to man the middle of the defense, as he made the switch to weak-side linebacker and performed admirably and may have found his niche. Fairly athletic, Crockett fought through the 2002 season with a torn pectoral muscle, which limited his ability. Not physical enough to play the strong-side linebacker position, Crockett will battle with Biekert for the middle linebacker spot and Smith for the weak-side linebacker position, unless the team signs a middle linebacker in free agency.

"The strong-side linebacker position is a serious question for the Vikings. Rookie Nick Rogers stepped in during the season and showed some promise. He is a little bigger than you would like to see or that is expected at the position (255-260). He is one of those players that size-wise does not have a home — too small to play defensive end, too big to play strong-side linebacker. Rogers could be the exception, as he is committed to the position and the coaching staff likes his ability and desire."

"Patrick Chukwurah is an enigma. He has the athleticism to play the strong-side linebacker position and he can occasionally get to the quarterback. He tends to lose focus and doesn't play out the assignment, which has led to some disappointment in his overall play. He (Chukwurah) is a player without a position and could be jettisoned out of Minnesota. Production is what it is all about in this league and Chukwurah simply has not been productive. His inconsistency continues to haunt him."

"The other players at the linebacker positions are really special teams guys, and every team needs those types of players. Lemanski Hall, Jim Nelson, Antonio Wilson are players that have a specific role, and that role is not to see significant playing time in the defensive scheme."

Despite some of the upside at the linebacker position, the Vikings are taking a long, hard look at upgrading those spots. From what we've been told, Rosevelt Colvin, Chris Claiborne, Jay Foreman and Shawn Barber should expect to hear from the Minnesota Vikings when free agency begins on Feb. 28.

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