Vikings training camp preview: Linebackers

Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway finished last season with 134 tackles, three sacks and a team-high three interceptions.

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

 

This is the seventh in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 25 start of camp.

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 4

Projected starters: Chad Greenway (ninth year), Jasper Brinkley (sixth year), Anthony Barr (first year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Dom DeCicco, *Gerald Hodges, *Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts, Mike Zimmer

The breakdown: Heading into training camp, linebackers appear to be the weakest position group for Minnesota. Part of the reason are the changes being instituted by new coach Mike Zimmer, such as the likelihood of Greenway switching sides and possibly playing in the middle. Another reason is the Vikings don’t have much certainty at the position after a lot of change over the past few years and inexperienced young players needing to step forward.

Vikings Positional Preview Series

Greenway should be the one certainty, but he’s coming off a down season by his standards after playing through a broken wrist. He led the team in tackles for the sixth straight season, finishing with 134 tackles, three sacks and a team-high three interceptions. Greenway is likely to be lining up on the other side of the defense in 2014 after long being the team’s strongside linebacker. Greenway said he’s studied more this offseason than he has in years. While switching sides, Greenway’s responsibilities shouldn’t change dramatically from past seasons. It appears as though he could be the middle linebacker in the nickel defense, too.

Around Greenway there has been change the past several years and he could be starting with two new players this time around. Aside from all the young players brought in during the past two years, Brinkley returns after spending a year with the Arizona Cardinals. Brinkley seems to fit the mold of a run-stuffing middle linebacker in Zimmer’s defense. But Brinkley could be a rotational player with Cole, Hodges or Mauti. Brinkley would get the early, running-down work.

If the practice repetitions during the summer are any indication, the linebackers will change dramatically from the run and pass downs. Cole got work on the outside in the base defense while Barr was still in school. In nickel defense, it was typically a speedier linebacker — Hodges most often — next to Greenway.

Cole showed some playmaking ability late last year while stepping in for Erin Henderson. Hodges, on the outside, and Mauti, in the middle, have potential but were limited mainly to special teams duties last year. Dean has been a quality special teams player for the past few seasons and could stick just based on his coverage in that area. But Dean rarely received any snaps in defensive packages during the summer.

Barr is the wild card and the most intriguing player at the position. Thought to be more of a fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, Zimmer believed Barr fits his 4-3 defense well. Zimmer was high on Barr’s pass-rushing abilities and believes he can fit in coverage as well. Barr didn’t get much exposure — at least in team drills — during the summer because he had to return to UCLA after being drafted. His participation and role will be interesting to watch during training camp. Barr is 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and speedy. He’ll be asked to rush the passer, but Zimmer likely has a versatile role for him.

Best position battle: The entirety of the linebacker corps is one big competition, really. Greenway is set at one spot and Barr will play, but there’s little known besides those two. Barr could even come off the bench early in the season if he’s behind the curve because of his absence and Cole shows to be a capable starter. Brinkley has to be considered the leader to start in the middle, but will have to hold off Mauti and possibly Cole. And then there are the different requirements for the nickel defense, where speed and coverage ability will be appreciated.

Assuming Greenway, Barr, Brinkley and Cole, at least, have roster spots set, the decisions and biggest competition will be for the backup spots, along with how many players Minnesota decides to keep. Hodges and Mauti, both filled with potential, should stick. Do the Vikings keep a seventh linebacker and possibly go with fewer defensive linemen? Does Dean stick for his special teams work? The final spot, with a lean towards special teams may come down to Dean or safety Andrew Sendejo. Does Watts’ speed prove to be an asset on special teams, or can he make the move to the practice squad?

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings. Green Bay, partially because it runs a 3-4 defense, has invested the most at linebacker and gets the most production. Chicago has tried to upgrade its linebackers, but hasn’t seen the benefit of the resources. Really, there are few standouts at the position in the division.

Julius Peppers makes the move from the Bears to the Packers and will try being a stand-up, outside linebacker for the first time in his career. Green Bay hopes he provides a pass-rushing complement to Clay Matthews on the other side. Matthews missed time again last season because of injuries, limited to 11 games. But he came through with 41 tackles, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, maybe the biggest difference-maker at the position in the division. Peppers had a down season with Chicago, though he had seven sacks.

A.J. Hawk led Green Bay with 118 tackles in the inside last year, adding five sacks. But his play has been inconsistent over the years. The website ProFootballFocus.com gave Hawk a minus-10 grade last year, one of the worst marks among every-down inside linebackers. Brad Jones returns to start next to Hawk inside. He had 84 tackles and three sacks while starting all 12 games he played last season. Green Bay hopes to finally see some results from 2012 first-round draft pick Nick Perry, an outside linebacker.

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Detroit’s linebackers don’t have big names, but they have been steady. Stephen Tulloch was ranked as the second-best inside linebacker in the NFL last year by Pro Football Focus. Tulloch had 135 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Next to Tulloch has been DeAndre Levy, a solid outside linebacker who was second on the team with 119 tackles. Levy also had a team-high six interceptions, tied for second in the NFL and the most among linebackers.

The Lions used mainly Tulloch and Levy last year as they played a majority of nickel defense. Detroit did draft Kyle Van Noy in the second-round this year, though, and he could be a strong third piece as an athletic and versatile player.

Chicago made big changes at the position last year to go with longtime standout Lance Briggs. The moves didn’t pay off. James Anderson came over from Carolina and led the team with 102 tackles and added four sacks. He’s now with New England. D.J. Williams was signed from Denver and he only managed to play in six games. He’ll compete with second-year linebacker Jon Bostic from Florida to start in the middle.

Briggs returns after he was held to nine games last season. He had 71 tackles, three sacks, six pass deflections and two forced fumbles, showing he still has the knack for big plays. Like Perry in Green Bay, the Bears are trying to find a way to get production from their 2012 first-round draft pick. Shea McClellin is being moved full-time to outside linebacker and is expected to be a starter. In two seasons and 28 career games, McClellin has 44 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Seemingly a poor fit from the beginning for Chicago’s 4-3 defense, McClellin was a defensive end last season but will be asked to drop in coverage as well as rush the passer as a stand-up outside linebacker this year.

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