2014 Vikings draft preview: Linebackers
FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the ninth day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.
TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS
Importance (1-to-10 scale): 8
On the roster
The only certainty for Minnesota is veteran Chad Greenway, who has led the team in tackles each of the past six seasons. Around him has been constant change and inconsistent play. The changes could still be coming until new coach Mike Zimmer finds the linebackers he needs for his defense. It’s possible the linebackers, and how they lined up, during the team’s voluntary minicamp this week will be different by the time training camp and the season roll around.
Erin Henderson has been released after off-field issues. Meanwhile, Jasper Brinkley has come back after one season away. Greenway occupies his familiar strongside linebacker spot. Audie Cole flashed ability midway through last season after taking over the middle linebacker position from Henderson.
Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges were relegated mostly to special teams duties after being drafted last year. Both will compete for starting spots this season. Larry Dean returns as a special-teams standout and Minnesota added young linebacker Terrell Manning as a free agent and former University of Minnesota linebacker Simoni Lawrence from the Canadian Football League.
Last five linebackers drafted
Philosophy at the position
If minicamp is any indication, Brinkley might be the leader in the competition at middle linebacker with Cole having the edge at weakside linebacker. But it’s all speculation at this point. Minnesota is sure to add more competition and might be looking toward the draft to find another starter.
The Vikings have options. The position is deep in the draft and Minnesota should be able to find an impact player in the first round, or possibly Day 1 starters later. The Vikings can even look to the middle or outside for answers in the draft — or both — and adjust with what’s left on the roster. The options are numerous right now for Minnesota with so much undetermined and with Zimmer sure to emphasize his own beliefs and desires for the position.
Minnesota has taken five linebackers in the past four drafts, but is still searching for starters. One reason could be because the highest pick on a linebacker during that stretch was the 120th selection overall, in the fourth round, for Hodges last year. The last productive starter the Vikings have drafted was Greenway, a first-rounder in 2006. Brinkley, a fifth-rounder in 2009, has been a starter for Minnesota.
Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)
Khalil Mack, senior, Buffalo (6-foot-3, 251 pounds): The total package? Mack just might be it at linebacker. Perhaps the only knock against Mack is the quality of competition he played against at Buffalo. But of course, that concern was partially erased by a dominating performance last year against Ohio State when he had 2.5 sacks and returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown, making a nifty athletic play at the line of scrimmage to intercept the pass. He added nine tackles in the game, which served as his "Here I am moment" to the NFL.
Mack has the statistics. A Butkus Award finalist for the best linebacker in college football, Mack had 100 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. A four-year starter and team captain last year, Mack set a Football Bowl Sub-Division modern-day record with 75 tackles for loss in his four years at Buffalo. He also set a record for major-college football with 16 forced fumbles.
Mack has the measurables, too. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he ran a 4.65-second, 40-yard dash, the fourth-best time for all linebackers at the event. He was second among linebackers with a 40-inch vertical jump, the ninth-best jump for linebackers in the past 10 years. His broad jump of 10 feet, 8 inches was second among linebackers this year and seventh-best at the position in the last 10 years.
Simply put, Mack is one of the top prospects in the draft and has a chance to go No. 1 overall. But there is a chance he slides a bit and Minnesota should be awfully tempted if he’s sitting at No. 8 for the Vikings’ turn. He’s had his hand in the ground as an edge rusher and can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. He’s a complete player with the ability to rush the passer or drop in coverage.
Said Mack: "I want to be the best . . . my dad always taught me, man, he told me you want to be the best at anything and everything that you do. And I strive to be the best at anything I do, whether it was raking the leaves growing up, or whether it was playing tic-tac-toe with my brothers, whether it was kicking the ball in the dirt with a can on the ground and you had to kick the can. We did stupid things but we wanted to be the best at it, and that’s the reason I am so competitive."
Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)
Kyle Van Noy, senior, Brigham Young (6-3, 243): Van Noy is one of the top outside linebacker prospects around but could fall to the second round and Minnesota’s selection at No. 40 overall. The linebacker position is deep in the draft this year with possibly five to six going in the first round. But that’s no knock on Van Noy, who stands up on his own against the best linebackers in the draft.
Van Noy is quick and strong and has good pass-rush ability. He showed a knack for making the big play and causing havoc for quarterbacks. He’s fluid and athletic enough to drop in coverage and keep with running backs and tight ends. He uses quickness more than strength in the pass rush, and uses his speed to track down quarterbacks and ball carries.
Van Noy leaves Brigham Young with a school-record 62 tackles for loss and he also added 26 sacks. He started all 26 games at outside linebacker the past two seasons and had a combined 123 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and four interceptions. He’s scored five touchdowns on interception and fumble returns.
Said Van Noy: "I feel like I’ve done a lot of things that people around me haven’t done. I scored five career touchdowns playing defense, so I feel like I’m an offensive player on defense. I want to get the ball in the offense’s hands, but also have the aggression to play linebacker. I feel like every time you get a sack, you try to get the ball out. Quarterbacks, some can’t see you from the backside or some are looking downfield when you’re coming from the front side. I feel like getting the ball is key. At the end of the day it’s all about getting the ball."
Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)
Preston Brown, senior, Louisville (6-1, 251): If the Vikings are looking for more competition in the middle, Brown could well fit the bill. Brown reportedly visited Minnesota for its annual Top-30 visit. He’s an aggressive run-stopping middle linebacker who might well fit Zimmer’s defense.
Brown led Louisville in tackles each of the past two seasons, finishing 2013 with 98 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He added three forced fumbles and returned a fumble 48 yards for a touchdown. His big and strong and is a physical player who enjoys coming up and delivering the blow in run defense.
Brown is actually similar to Brinkley in many ways — both thumpers in the middle against the running game. Brown isn’t as strong at going back and dropping in pass coverage. His work in coverage needs work and he doesn’t have the range to cover a large part of the field.
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter