Earlier we took a look at the defensive line heading into camp and as promised, we now take a look at the other half of the defensive front: the linebackers.
Most of the linebackers who will comprise the back end of this 4-3 defense fared better than their comrades on the defensive line did. Of course, in some respects, that’s like saying they died slightly more slowly.
There’s a lot of talent here, even before you add the upside of rookie Anthony Barr, so Zimmer has a ton to work with.
Let’s see where things stand prior to training camp.
Safe: Anthony Barr (R), Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway, Audie Cole
It goes without saying that a first round draft pick is generally safe—especially one in the top ten. Barr has some rawness to his game. With just two years of experience on the defensive side of the ball for UCLA (he had been a running back prior to the switch), you can see the issues with his game, but also the upside.
Barr has tremendous acceleration off the snap, recovers quickly when the ball carrier changes direction and hits opposing players hard. His instincts are still developing though and he gets fooled when perhaps a more experienced linebacker prospect wouldn’t. His best years are ahead of him and Zimmer seems like the type of coach who can make Barr a disruptive pass rushing force.
A former Viking who spent the 2013 season with the Cardinals, Brinkley isn’t the long term answer in the middle of the defense, but is a decent short term one. He’s got no real coverage skills and isn’t much of a pass rusher, but is a solid run-stopper.
He’ll actually see some challenge from Cole as well. I’ve been a big fan of Cole’s since he arrived, knowing it would take time to hone his edge. Last season we saw a lot of Cole when he filled in for the since-departed Erin Henderson. He struggled a bit against the run, but did a fair job rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. He still has a way to go and is limited athletically, but is a very smart and dedicated player who has shown toughness as well. I think we’re just seeing the beginning for him.
Greenway worked mostly from the strongside or SAM last season, but is moving to the weakside or WILL in 2014. He might also move inside on occasion depending on how Cole and Brinkley are doing. Greenway was bad last year but has produced before. The hope is that last season was a brief regression and not the beginning of the end for the 31-year old veteran.
On the Bubble: Larry Dean, Dom DeCicco, Michael Mauti (R), Gerald Hodges, Brandon Watts
Dean is a special teams player who is a solid tackler and a tough athlete, but that’s all he is. It’s likely the team keeps him around as he is productive in that role, but if they find someone who can produce on special teams and step in defensively on occasion, Dean would be replaced.
DeCicco played for the Chicago Bears the last two seasons, but was hurt last year. A converted strong safety, DeCicco is the type of guy who is a threat to Dean’s roster spot. He’s a solid special teams player who has some experience at outside linebacker, having effectively subbed in for Brian Urlacher in 2012. DeCicco has decent size but average speed and range, and is only so-so on passing downs. He’s also constantly hurt, something which was a huge factor in the Bears letting him go.
The Vikings are high on Mauti, a rookie who dropped in the draft because he was coming off his second ACL tear in his left knee. There’s a strong chance he starts the year on the PUP list, but the team thinks he can compete for the middle linebacker spot when and if he gets healthy. He’s not a great athlete, but has excellent instincts, does a good job shedding blocks and getting to the ball carrier and is a solid leader—he spent part of his injury plagued 2011 season coaching up younger players.
If he can’t stay on the field though, it won’t matter.
Hodges is likely to spend his first year on special teams. A strong tackler with OK size but middle-of-the-road athleticism, Hodges would be a good fit at WILL but Greenway won’t be giving that up anytime soon. With Barr at the SAM and Brinkley/Cole fighting for the middle position, there’s just not much room here for Hodges. So he has to perform on special teams.
Watts is best known in draft circles as an athletic outside linebacker who ran a ridiculous Pro Day 40 time of 4.41. Needless to say the guy can move and will go sideline-to-sideline, but with the glut of talent in place, he is another guy who has to perform on special teams.
Outside Looking In: Mike Zimmer
Zimmer (no relation to the head coach) is a limited athlete who failed to make the Jacksonville Jaguars roster in 2013. He doesn’t have a lot of speed and has pretty average strength and size. It’s possible he proves himself on special teams but is likely just a camp body.