Vikings need more depth at linebacker

Today is the 10th day of two weeks of Minnesota Vikings coverage leading up to the April 26 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
April 15: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
Today: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
April 24: Rick Spielman’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round pick

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 7

On the roster

The Vikings have had very little change in their linebacking corps over the past several years, but change could be on the way. Minnesota signed Chad Greenway to a five-year contract extension before last season, and he made his first Pro Bowl. Erin Henderson was a regular starter for the first time in his career and improved throughout the season. He hit unrestricted free agency but re-signed with Minnesota on a one-year deal. His brother, E.J. Henderson, also is an unrestricted free agent, and the Vikings likely won’t be bringing back the 31-year-old. The starting middle linebacker spot will likely go to Jasper Brinkley, who missed last season after hip surgery. Brinkley has never been a full-time starter, but is a similar player to E.J. Henderson. Minnesota didn’t have much depth last season and will likely look to improve the overall depth this year. Last year’s rookie free agent Larry Dean returns, but he is mainly used on special teams. The Vikings signed Solomon Elimimian out of the Canadian Football League, and Marvin Mitchell, who played last season with the Miami Dolphins. Practice squad holdover Tyrone McKenzie is still on the roster. Most of the backups are considered special teams players. The team could look to fill some backup positions and develop future starters.

Last five linebackers drafted

2011–Ross Homan, Ohio State: sixth round (200th overall) — released, September 2011, out of the NFL
2010–Nate Triplett, Minnesota: fifth round (167th overall) — released, August 2010, out of the NFL
2010–Ryan D’Imperio, Rutgers: seventh round (237th overall) — still with the Vikings, moved to fullback
2009–Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina: fifth round (150th overall) — still with the Vikings
2007–Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma: sixth round (176th overall) — signed off Vikings practice squad by Indianapolis Colts, December 2008, out of the NFL

Philosophy at the position

The Vikings have been willing to draft linebackers early. Some have worked, some haven’t. Greenway was a first-round pick in 2006. E.J. Henderson was a second-rounder in 2003. Busts Raonall Smith and Dontarrious Thomas were selected in the second round. Minnesota hasn’t jumped at many linebackers early in recent seasons, though, aside from Greenway. It could be one reason the team hasn’t been able to establish much depth. Erin Henderson was undrafted. He replaced Ben Leber, who was a free-agent signing. It certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see general manager Rick Spielman address the position in the draft this season, hoping for more defensive depth and maybe a possible future starter.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Luke Kuechly, junior, Boston College (6-3, 242). There is no one talking linebacker for the Vikings in the first round, but if one were to attract their attention it would be Kuechly. Considered one of the best linebackers to come out in the draft in several seasons, he can play inside in a 3-4 defense or in the middle of a 4-3 like Minnesota runs. Kuechly likely will be drafted in the top 10 to 15 picks. He had an extremely productive collegiate career, totaling 532 tackles as a three-year starter at Boston College. He added 35.5 tackles for loss and seven interceptions. He has great athleticism, instincts and is smart. He was a two-time captain at Boston College and had good intangibles. Kuchely is considered one of the safer picks in the draft. He won’t add much as a pass rusher, but he will be good stopping the run and has the ability to drop in coverage. There’s no indication he’s being considered by the Vikings, even if they trade back, but he’d be the perfect replacement in the middle for E.J. Henderson and would adapt well to Minnesota’s 4-3 Cover 2 defense.

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Mychal Kendricks, senior, California (5-11, 239). Kendricks could be the type of linebacker Minnesota looks to, especially as a value pick on Day 2. He has started for the past two years at California and has been productive. Kendricks has played inside and outside and could do the same at the next level in the NFL. The biggest knock is his size — he’s only 5-foot-11 and doesn’t have great arm length. But he does bring a physical presence and is versatile enough to play anywhere in any type of defense. Kendricks is a very strong tackler and can fill the gaps as inside linebacker. He had 107 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year playing inside. He had 8.5 sacks in 2010 as an outside linebacker. Kendricks has four career interceptions but might need more work dropping back in a system like Minnesota’s, which calls for the linebackers to support in coverage. He’s the type of player the Vikings could develop as an eventual starter in the middle or outside.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Audie Cole, senior, North Carolina State (6-4, 246). Cole is another player who could fit in a 4-3 defense as a middle or outside linebacker even though outside might suit him best. He played inside his senior year at North Carolina State and registered 108 tackles in 13 games. He added 5.5 sacks and has 14 sacks as a three-year starter. He’s strong and a good tackler but is somewhat limited athletically. He can add some value as a pass rusher, but probably would be lost in coverage. Ultimately, he’d be a versatile backup and would be a project-type player.

FOXSports.com draft expert Taylor Jones says:

“Linebacker is kind of that position now where you’re talking about three to four different types of skill sets that all fall under the linebacker category. Obviously, with Minnesota’s defense you’re looking more the 4-3, the traditional Mike, Will and Sam type of players. … Actually, I think it’s a pretty good draft as far as having the Will type of skill-set linebackers.”

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