EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The names have changed, the players come and gone. Chad Greenway has been the one constant on the second level of the Minnesota Vikings defense.
The scenario won’t change this season. Erin Henderson is gone now. Jasper Brinkley is back for a second round. First-round pick Anthony Barr will try to work himself into a starting role. Greenway is still the leader among Minnesota’s linebackers.
And for the first time in years, Greenway, too, is changing.
Still relied upon heavily in new coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, Greenway’s responsibilities are being altered a bit. His position is changing along with the scheme and terminology.
"This is the first chance, really, for me to learn something completely new," Greenway said after organized team activities on Thursday. "It’s been good. I go through the same growing pains as the young guys, as far as learning new stuff. Sometimes it’s even harder for me, because I have everything so ingrained over the years. It’s been great. It’s been a fun defense to start to learn, and we’ve just got to get good at it now."
In simplistic terms, Greenway had been the "Sam" linebacker in previous coach Leslie Frazier’s defense, covering the strongside. Zimmer said the responsibilities are switched between the "Sam" and weakside "Will" linebacker in his version of the 4-3.
Greenway is learning his way across the defense, even the middle.
"Really, for the most part, it’s a lot of similarities to what I have done, just coverages and other issues that are a little bit different," Greenway said. "I played a little bit of the middle today, and I have throughout this offseason. It’s just football. It’s about where you line up, what your role is and just fit in it. Physically, I know I can do it, and mentally, it’s just working through that. Like everybody else, it’s early."
Greenway’s usage has been a common topic during the offseason.
A two-time Pro Bowl player, Greenway led the Vikings with 134 tackles last year while playing through a fractured wrist. Playing mostly in his familiar strongside spot, Greenway has led Minnesota in tackles for six straight seasons.
But the Vikings staff has mentioned the linebackers will be used differently in Zimmer’s defense, without going into any specifics.
"He can fit in fine," Zimmer said. "He’s a good guy, he’s smart, he’s very conscientious. He’s a pro’s pro, but he should fit in very well."
The defensive responsibilities — particularly with Zimmer’s more aggressive, blitzing style — have transformed at each position, though Greenway says the base defense won’t look much different from the past.
Zimmer has preached competition, and those spots alongside Greenway still need to be determined. Zimmer also values Greenway’s versatility.
"When you go into a game with six linebackers, if something happens, they’ve got to be ready to go," Zimmer said. "So part of the deal with guys is we’re trying to give them a lot of different things to do. I’ve always felt like the more you can do, the more valuable you are on game day."
Barr will be given a chance after being drafted with the ninth overall pick. Brinkley returns and has spent much of the early portion of the offseason as first-team middle linebacker. But Audie Cole, who started in the middle at the end of last season, and second-year linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti should have their say, as well.
Or maybe Greenway takes over in the middle, as he did in nickel situations during Thursday’s practice.
"For me, I really just want to be able to come in and say, ‘Hey, I want to learn something new. I want to be good at it,’" Greenway said. "It’s about going back to stripping yourself down from the tape last year and starting all over again. It’s nice to know that most likely, you’re going to have a position out there if you can stay healthy and play, and play up to the coach’s standards, but nothing’s obviously given to anybody."
With that in mind, Greenway has been studying, constantly looking at the playbook on his iPad.
"I probably haven’t studied this much football in six or seven years," Greenway said. "It’s been a long time. I’m always carrying that iPad and notebook around, trying to learn and ask as many questions as possible. There’s a lot of things to learn, a lot of things these coaches know that come up in this scheme that hadn’t come up before. They’ve done a good job presenting it to us, and we’re trying to learn and make it right."
Greenway’s status as a leader on the defense isn’t changing with Zimmer at the helm. Zimmer has already noticed the work Greenway has put in to learn the scheme.
"It’s important to him," Zimmer said. "That’s why he’s been a good player for a long, long time is because it’s important. If we had 90 of those kinds of guys, it would be good."