Vikings training camp is well under way and finding some answers for the linebacker corps is high on Coach Zimmer’s list. Last season the linebackers were completely ineffective much of the time and even the normally trusty Chad Greenway wasn’t very good.
The Erin Henderson experiment at middle linebacker was an utter failure and on top of that Henderson was an off the field nuisance with is well documented drinking problem. Marvin Mitchell wasn’t much better on the field but at least wasn’t a problem outside of football.
Greenway for his part was playing with a wrist injury for most of the season, so at least that explains some of the drop in production. Going back to and watching film on the Vikings from last season left me with the impression that Greenway was pressing hard to cover for the poor play of the other linebackers. Unfortunately, he may be in store the same treatment this year with an unsettled middle linebacker position and a rookie on the strongside.
Middle Linebacker is the most unsettled position at this point at Vikings training camp. Potential starters include Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole, and Mike Mauti. Brinkley is a downhill type of linebacker, great at initiating contact and stopping the run going straight to the line of scrimmage and figures to be odds on favorite to start.
However, the problem with Brinkley is that he is a bigger guy with tight hips and isn’t all that fast so he is nearly useless in coverage and isn’t particularly good rushing the passer either. That’s what makes this position concerning.
Audie Cole jumped right in, and out played Erin Henderson when thrust into the position. Cole played well considering the situation but he did struggle with reading and making the right calls that are expected from the middle linebacker position. Cole was pushed around and fairly ineffective against the run last season which is a huge problem when that is your primary role as a middle linebacker.
I think that barring some sort of setback that Brinkley, who has been getting the first team reps, will go into the season as the starter. If nothing else he is a pretty good tackler and known for being pretty good against the run. It’s a lot easier to mask a linebacker that is poor in coverage than mask one that is poor against the run.
Others to consider are Mike Mauti and Brandon Watts, both have been given some reps at middle linebacker but neither seems very likely to be a starter. Watts is on the small side for most 4-3 linebackers and Mauti seems to be losing traction with the coaching staff.
Outside is becoming more and more settled with Greenway back and healthy moving over to the weakside and Anthony Barr getting the first team reps on the strongside. This is a make or break season for Greenway who is coming off perhaps is worst season and a potential target to get cut if that performance is repeated this year.
Greenway, when healthy, is one of the better outside linebackers in the league and a tackling machine. He has a good all around game being equally good in coverage and in reading the run and making the tackle. The knock on him has always been that he doesn’t make enough big plays and that part is still true going into 2014.
Anthony Barr, the #9 overall pick in the 2014 draft, comes in with high expectations placed upon him. The scouting report indicates that he’s a freak athlete at 6’5″ and 255 pounds that runs the 40 in the 4.6 range. To put that in perspective, he’s almost as heavy as defensive end Brian Robison but two inches taller.
So, Barr is as big as some 4-3 defensive ends, but as fast and freaky athletically as most outside linebackers.While physically Barr passes the eye test the question is can he make the adjustment mentally to playing linebacker? At UCLA he only played linebacker for two years and didn’t play defense at all before that.
The good news is that Barr has quickly been eating up more and more of the first team reps on the strongside. Barr has been working hard to learn the playbook and studying what the coaches teaching. He is known for keeping novel length notes at meetings and it seems that his efforts to try to learn are really paying off at this point.
Barr has been lining up on the line of scrimmage (standing up), outside of the defensive end indicating that the Vikings may be planning on using him in some sort of fire zone blitz packages as well. I have not heard or seen anything in camp about the Vikings running any 3-4 packages but they very well might do that given Barr’s pass rushing ability is off the charts.
Others to consider are Brandon Watts, Audie Cole, Mike Mauti, and Gerald Hodges. In somewhat of a surprise, rookie 7th round pick Brandon Watts been moving up the depth charts and caught the eye of the coaching staff. He has had some first team snaps and has been getting a good number of the second team snaps between weak and strong sides.
If Watts contiues to impress he could be the backup to Greenway on the weakside where his quickness would be best used. Watts is only 225 pounds which makes him more of an over sized safety than a linebacker but with his 4.41 speed he can be a very good side-to-side chase linebacker and good in coverage.
Who makes the team?
Most teams that play 4-3 will keep six linebackers. Greenway, Barr, Brinkley, and Cole seem to have four spots locked down, leaving two open. Currently I’d have to give the final two spots to Brandon Watts and Gerald Hodges. I know I’m going to get comments about Mike Mauti because he has a strong following but given he hasn’t been getting reps with the second team it indicates the current coaching staff isn’t impressed.
Never fear, Mauti fans, he still has a chance and while Watt is impressing in camp I wouldn’t be surprised if they would rather him go to the practice team for a year and try to add a little size. That would open the door for Mauti, Larry Dean and others.