Plenty of competition, constant rotations at linebacker for Vikings
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- During the final practice of organized team activities, Minnesota Vikings rookie Eric Kendricks dropped into coverage and nearly intercepted a pass, the ball falling to the ground after going off the linebacker's hands.
The play ended up a letdown but Kendricks' teammates were excited for the near-pick, the type of situation Kendricks and the team hope he's in plenty this year. Kendricks, the second-round draft pick out of UCLA, is the hopeful answer to the long unsettled spot in the middle of the Vikings' linebacker corps.
Throughout OTAs, Minnesota has had a constant rotation as coaches get a look at different options in both the base defense and which two linebackers have the ability to stay on in the nickel defense. Kendricks, veteran Chad Greenway, Audie Cole, Josh Kaddu, Brandon Watts, Edmond Robinson and Brian Peters all vying for snaps to prove themselves.
Anthony Barr, last year's rookie sensation, and Gerald Hodges, Casey Matthews and Michael Mauti have all missed time because of injuries. The competition for the middle linebacker spot in the base defense and the two linebackers for the nickel might be more perceived than reality, as Greenway fully understands after seeing plenty of competitions play out over the years.
"Yes and no, I think there's some validity to it being wide open," Greenway said this week. "At the same time, when you draft a guy in the second round I think the writing's on the wall, and you have a guy like Anthony. So, is it open? Not really. I think from the standpoint of competition, for sure. There's more competition than we've probably ever had."
Once healthy, Barr will slide into his spot and try to improve on a rookie season in which he had 70 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 12 games before suffering a knee injury. For Barr -- expected to practice on a limited basis next week during Minnesota's mandatory minicamp -- that means playing on the strong side in the base and also seeing time in the nickel.
Kendricks, Barr's college teammate, was drafted to play the middle and has seen his share of practice time in the nickel.
"Maybe sometimes a little too comfortable," Kendricks said of being comfortable with his coverage ability. "I kind of want to cover too much too fast and I'm not patient enough. They're trying to get my eyes right and slow me down a little bit, and not be so anxious. Realize I have help in certain situations then others and know when I have to play aggressively. I'm very comfortable in coverage and I'm just going to get better as I go."
In his first professional offseason, Kendricks is learning quickly. He's not hindered in the same way Barr was, when Barr had to return to UCLA to finish school. Kendricks has been a mainstay at the facility for OTAs.
"I think he's further ahead than most rookies but they're all different," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "Barr was pretty sharp last year when he came in. So, they're all different. Eric's been doing a good job. He's obviously got a lot of athletic ability. He's studying real hard. I think he's got a chance to be a good player."
If Kendricks becomes a top option in the nickel, it could mean decreased time for Greenway, the veteran of the group.
Greenway, entering his 10th NFL season, doesn't want to give up his position in the nickel.
"I don't think you'd ever be open to that," Greenway said. "I want to, obviously, compete to win that job. And if that means I get to win it and play more snaps, that's what I want to do. I know when healthy I'm capable of playing really well at that position. So, I'm not ready to concede that. But at the same time, I'm ready to do what it takes to win. At this point in my career, that's what I want to do."
The competition, for roster spots as well as first-team nickel snaps, will be one to watch as the summer unfolds with minicamp and training camp. Greenway's experience tells him the competition is likely more intrinsic than a matter of reality.
"It's going to be interesting to see how everything shakes out," Greenway said. "As I've gotten older, you understand that things change and you try to fit into the role where that's going to be, and be open to doing whatever and winning football games and keeping that the most important thing."
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