The linebackers – as with every defensive unit, it seems – might stand alone in the NFL based on their starting talent and capabilities. When at their best, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks wreak havoc on opponents hoping to protect themselves from blitzes or find ways to attack through the air to running backs or tight ends. Unfortunately, both of them can play streaky – even though one (Kendricks) has a reputation for consistency. For the Vikings, who are considering offering a long-term contract to one and have already secured the other, that consistency will be key to improving the defense from one of the league’s best to potentially one of the decade’s best. Behind those linebackers is a minefield of question marks, however, so it will be on those starters not just to maintain on-field consistency, but health as well.
[expand title=”ANTHONY BARR”]
Anthony Barr represents a significant mystery for the Vikings and Vikings fans. After an elite 2015 campaign, Barr put together a very poor 2016 season. 2017 was supposed to be the year everything cohered and we could see who Barr truly was. Instead, Barr played the middle and put in a largely good performance but nothing like what we saw with him at his best. If he doesn’t enter the season with a deal from the Vikings, there could be a lot on the line this year, not to mention the importance he has to the team.
Strengths: Fantastic speed and he can cover incredible ground – enables the scheme. Ability to run from A gap to a screen receiver and beat the ball there makes the third down defense possible. Range is comparable to safeties. Had his best statistical year as a coverage player – 0.94 yards given up per snap in coverage. Still has a lot of work to do, but did a much better job finding his landmark in zone coverage and snapping to the ball in the air. Tracked tight ends better in man coverage downfield, and used his speed and fluidity to shut down passing lanes. Only gave up more than 50 yards in coverage in two games during the regular season. Gave up fewer than 10 yards in seven games. Did a better job using his length to disrupt passing lanes, though he didn’t get his hands on the ball all that often. Good take-on power and can drill ballcarriers. Great blitzer with accomplished pass-rush moves. Demonstrates good technique when taking on blocks, with good hand placement and excellent use of length.
Weaknesses: Though he wasn’t on pace to repeat his awful missed tackles from his rookie year or 2016, he still had a good chunk of missed tackles – despite his length and range. Can occasionally make the wrong decision in coverage or be confused, though incidence of this has dropped pretty significantly. More of a blitzer than pass-rusher, so cannot transition to a full-time role as an edge-rusher or be used too often as a pressure creator. Can take poor tackling angles to the play and sometimes takes a second to register the play. Functional upper-body strength issues show up in broken arm tackles and inability to separate off of blocks despite technical capability. Can be blown off of blocks.[/expand]
[expand title=”ERIC KENDRICKS”]
Though built up as the more consistent of the two starting linebackers, Eric Kendricks may actually have had a worse year than his starting partner. His play varied a little more game to game, but he still remains an essential piece to the organization and execution of the defense. Without Kendricks, the Vikings would be back to losing dozens of yards from shifty, pass-catching running backs. His instincts are off the charts, and that might be irreplaceable – something the Vikings seem to agree with after they handed him a long-term deal.
Strengths: Clearly an instinctive linebacker and often the first to react off the snap. Ability to read defenses is substantial, and turned from a liability in coverage as a rookie to returning to his college form as a pass defender. Excellent at sussing out screens and shutting them down. Excellent at playing depth of route in pass coverage and adapting to multiple coverage schemes. Efficient tackler and a good combination of creativity and assignment-sound defending; usually one of the top defenders in the NFL in producing tackles at or near the line of scrimmage – though he didn’t repeat that feat in 2017. Excellent understanding of pursuit angles. Better-than-average speed and agility.
Weaknesses: Kendricks’ instincts were on display, but still had trouble translating feel into action; sometimes a hair late to his spot – when he wasn’t the first player to react to the snap, he could be the last. This could be one of the reasons he had one of the lowest stop rates among all linebackers in the NFL last year, despite a history of production with that statistic. Size concerns still show up when taking on blocks, and if he loses the battle of first contact, he has issues shedding. Doesn’t always squeeze lanes. Could fix take-on skills with technical work because he has requisite strength but still hasn’t fixed it. Despite generally good form and strength, missed a number of tackles both in 2016 and 2017; had the seventh-most missed tackles of 89 linebackers.[/expand]
[expand title=”BEN GEDEON”]
A third linebacker plays a subpackage role in the modern NFL, switching places with the nickel corner in that respect. Ben Gedeon earned a spot as that third linebacker, specializing in run defense and performed well enough in that respect. His run stop rate in 2017 ranked fourth among outside linebackers.
Strengths: Physical player and efficient tackler. Excellent tackling form and willingness to run through blocks and running backs allows him to finish plays and destroy running lanes. Only missed one tackle in the running game in 2017. Technical capability to take on blocks gives him an edge against more powerful linemen and means he can shed more often than some of the better linebackers in the class. Nice closing burst in the run game and click-and-close as a zone coverage defender. Solid football instincts that can determine the flow of play and get to the running back before anyone else. In limited passing-down play, limited YAC in few times he was targeted.
Weaknesses: Lack of on-field speed despite Gedeon’s tested numbers. Difficulties in coverage, including issues with long-speed carrying tight ends and running backs. Agility issues prevent him from covering short routes in man coverage; needs to keep passing plays ahead of him in zone. Players like him who live on instinctive play should not be fooled by misdirection as often as he is. Clearly limited to two-down role; allowed a 100 percent completion rate in 2017 – though he was only on the field for 87 passing snaps.[/expand]
[expand title=”ERIC WILSON”]
An undersized linebacker that took some time to see the field (and forced to transfer from Northwestern to do so), Eric Wilson seems an unlikely prospect to be a solid NFL contributor. But the Cincinnati product put together a fantastic senior season and made waves among those looking for late-round steals. He earned a roster spot as a special teams ace for the Vikings and was perhaps the best special teams performer aside from the specialists and Marcus Sherels.
Strengths: Fantastic production in his final college year, including 129 tackles. Assignment-sound play in college that holds against cutback lanes. Brought up his weight for his pro day and still posted phenomenal numbers, including an astounding vertical leap (39.5”), blazing agility drills (4.31 short shuttle and 6.96 3-cone), a fast 40 (4.53 seconds) and great bench reps (25). Did well disengaging from blocks to impact plays and solid movement in coverage. Didn’t miss many tackles and was one of the most efficient linebackers in the FBS in missed tackle rate. Fantastic special-teamer who led Cincinnati in special teams tackles at least one year.
Weaknesses: High tackle production not matched with many run stops; tackles are usually away from LOS. Late to the play at times in the preseason. Not versatile and can get swallowed up in blocks as a Sam linebacker or when rushing the passer. Stopping power as a tackler lacking; though he doesn’t miss tackles he can get dragged along for the ride. Despite excellent athletic measureables, plays slower on the field and faced problems catching up in coverage. Size meant that even when playing to run fits, he’d be pushed out of his assignment and may therefore be limited to special teams play.[/expand]
[expand title=”KENTRELL BROTHERS (suspended four games)”]
Just as Kentrell Brothers began to solidify his role on the roster, he earned a four-game suspension for PEDs. As good as Brothers is in his special teams role, he could find himself looking for a new roster if, during that suspension, other players play up to his level on special teams. His value as a depth linebacker is a little iffy given his profile as an on-field linebacker, so he needs to prove that he has unique value on special teams.
Strengths: In college, Brothers showed all the signs of an excellent linebacker from the neck up. Great understanding of offensive and defensive concepts. Not only was the defensive playcaller for Missouri, but was first off the snap to his assignment and was a magnet to the ball; a combination of instincts and film study that is hard to find. Tackled through the ballcarrier in college and once again on special teams for the Vikings. Tackling form has been consistent throughout. In the SEC, good blitzer and very good in taking on blocks with great handwork to complement his strength. Very durable. Forced nine turnovers as a senior—five interceptions and four fumbles. Assignment-sound on special teams, with great blocking and block-taking. In college, did excellent impact work on special teams, including three blocked kicks.
Weaknesses: He’s not very tall, long or athletic. Typically slower linebackers can make up for speed with instincts and size, but he lacks the requisite size to give confidence. Not a sideline-to-sideline defender and limited pursuit capability. Stiff in coverage and, as a result, too willing to gamble, sometimes giving up big plays. His instincts are good, but his speed is enough of a liability that he’s largely an issue on the field, even when taking on blocks in the run game. Take-on capability not quite as great in the NFL as it was in college, likely due to size. Can be slow downfield and needs to maintain middle-of-the-field roles on special teams units.[/expand]
[expand title=”MIKE NEEDHAM”]
A Southern Utah product, Needham might have considered his career cut short after the Arizona Cardinals released him immediately after rookie minicamp. But, with an extra roster spot because of Hercules Mata’afa’s injury, the Vikings found a place for Needham – who has a surprisingly open path for a depth spot at linebacker, where the Vikings are kind of weak. He fits their mold of a fast, special teams-type linebacker and if he surpasses expectations, he could make up for Kentrell Brothers’ suspension.
Strengths: Played a variety of roles in SUU – asked to man up in nickel as a CB against slot receivers, as well as play safety and linebacker. An eye for the ball in coverage, and good movement skills in man and zone to find the ball. Fantastic ability to disrupt the ball at the catch point or in a player’s hands. Great athletic metrics for a linebacker (scoring 1.5 standard deviations above the average drafted athlete and 52nd of 556 qualifying athletes). Very good sideline-to-sideline speed and hitting power. Diagnosis at the college level was good; could suss out most plays. Physical player willing to stick tackles.
Weaknesses: Undersized; listed at 200 pounds at Southern Utah and weighed in at his pro day at 224 pounds. Very low share of college team tackles and tackles-for-loss relative to draft picks in the NFL – even though he led the team in tackles. Can get blown off of blocks (again, at college weight of 200 pounds). Needs better tackling form and form taking on blocks, with more precise hand technique and hip uncoil. Played a ‘tweener position; many college linebackers that were lauded for their versatility ended up not sticking in the NFL. Cut from one NFL team already, which can be pretty meaningful. Played at a lower level in college.[/expand]
[expand title=”ANTWIONE WILLIAMS”]
Largely unrecruited out of high school, Antwione Williams didn’t have a true position in college for a while, switching between safety and linebacker. He finally settled in as a weakside linebacker and earned honorable All-Conference mentions – which he parlayed into a fifth-round selection and is entering his third year in the NFL.
Strengths: Surprising length (33” arms) for a linebacker, and very physical – especially for a safety convert. Demonstrates strength when taking on blocks or ballcarriers and can roll hips through tackle. Solid instincts to read and diagnose initial play design on runs. Does a good job fighting through blocks with power and with hand technique, stacking and shedding most offensive players at his level of play. Has showed some affinity for blitzing and creating pressure. Efficient footwork as a coverage defender. Understands route concepts.
Weaknesses: Unlike many former safeties, has issues with coverage, a lot of it relating to his agility and stiffness. Poor burst means he has issues closing in zone coverage and poor transition means he can’t carry well downfield. Can be tricked by play action or other play design tricks. Can be late to diagnose route packages. Average sideline-to-sideline speed limits his ability to demonstrate positional versatility in the NFL like he did in college. Big injury history in college.[/expand]
[expand title=”GARRET DOOLEY”]
Dooley is a fairly difficult player to project going forward given that the Vikings are transitioning him from edge player to linebacker. This isn’t new for the Vikings – they’ve attempted the same with a number of players in the past, including Anthony Barr. Dooley was originally recruited as an off-ball linebacker for Wisconsin but played edge to fill in for Vince Biegel. Luckily, that means he has some experience – even if it isn’t on gameday – at the position. Regardless, it is difficult to fully evaluate him for the position he’ll play.
Strengths: Lauded in every scouting report for being a good leader, his attitude should help in the locker room. Good handfighting technique that should translate well to stacking and shedding blocks. High effort player that will seek to finish. Good at reading plays before they develop and should be able to get to his landmark before the ballcarrier does. Good upper-body strength. Securing the edge should translate to finding and winning run fits. Good balance against cut blocks or base blocks. Good form tackling and hip uncoil.
Weaknesses: Slow 40-yard dash that shows up on the field. Limits chase and sideline ability. Also missing explosion, which will limit ability against pulling or second-level guards. Can let hands get inside his chest a little too often. Stiff mover that should have issues in transition and will likely be a big liability in coverage. Tackling angles can be weak.[/expand]
[expand title=”BRETT TAYLOR”]
The leading tackler in the FCS over the last two years, there’s some likelihood that Brett Taylor, a no-star recruit who committed to Western Illinois, could make his mark with the Vikings. He’ll have to prove himself on special teams like Garret Dooley and Mike Needham, but with how thin the Vikings depth chart is, he’s got as good a chance as anyone else it seems.
Strengths: Good form tackler and solid instincts for play design. Approaches run fits with physicality. Can sift through trash. Showcased blitzing talent at Western Illinois. A nose for the ball in coverage and in the run game – when near the ball, can usually put a hand on it. Recognizes route combinations and can read the quarterback. Good play strength. Led the FCS in tackles in 2016 and 2017.
Weaknesses: Limited length – 30” arms and 6’1” frame. Poor athlete – 4.96 40-yard dash fit for a particularly fast offensive lineman, not a linebacker. Lacks agility and flexibility through ankles and hips. Needs better timing when taking on blocks. Loses leverage against blockers – high pad level and poor hip uncoil. Has issues tracking tight ends and running backs in man coverage. Has problems breaking down tackles in space. Can be tricked by play fakes, leaving zones open.[/expand]
[expand title=”DEVANTE DOWNS”]
The Vikings selected a linebacker to stash going forward with Devante Downs, who grabbed two PAC-12 defensive player of the week awards before his season-ending knee injury. He still hasn’t participated in offseason activities and may start training camp on the PUP list. With that in mind, he could start the year on PUP and essentially act as a free roster spot for some time.
Strengths: Led the conference in tackles the week he went down, and generally has a nose for the ball. Very effective blitzer, with 16 pressures in only 54 pass-rushing snaps; one of the best pressure rates for off-ball linebackers in the FBS. Meant to be a mirror to Anthony Barr, with speed, agility and size. Good range and explosiveness. Solid tackler with good open-field skills to break down in space. Second-best coverage metrics of any drafted linebacker. Quick backpedal in coverage and ability to track the ball. Well-liked by coaches and locker room; teammates brought his jersey out in the first game after his injury to the team-stretching sessions. Named MVP of the defense by coaches and made Pro Football Focus’ PAC-12 first-team defense for 2017 despite missing the final five games.
Weaknesses: The injury might permanently rob him of speed, explosiveness and agility. Has some issues with form tackling at times, especially when taking on wide receivers after the catch. Doesn’t have the length one might have expected – 30” arms. Didn’t sift through trash well enough to make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage; many tackles are made downfield. Instincts are seemingly average, with some hesitation in response to run keys. Poor tackling angles. Only one year of good play; missed a good chunk of tackles in 2016 and had a difficult time getting off of blocks.[/expand]
[expand title=”RESHARD CLIETT”]
An athletic South Florida product, Reshard Cliett has bounced around the NFL to seven different teams despite being drafted in 2015. Unfortunately for Cliett, he didn’t play in the 2015 or 2017 preseasons because of injuries; an ACL injury in 2015 training camp and a finger injury in 2017 training camp limited him to one preseason showing in his three NFL years.
Strengths: Fantastic testing numbers for a linebacker, especially his 38 1/2” vertical leap. Fast 10-yard and 40-yard split numbers also bode well for the position. Good instinct for shedding blocks at the onset, with active hands and good use of long arms. Generally good understanding of the play; can suss out direction of run plays. Despite position switch in the NFL, shows an ability to carry players in man coverage down field, with good fluidity and speed. Can read quarterback’s eyes in zone and can close well. Solid tackler with good form. Had a great 2016 preseason, grading positively for PFF in each game.
Weaknesses: Largely played as an edge player in a 3-4 scheme in college and had to switch to ILB in the NFL, where he hasn’t stuck. Accounted for an astonishingly poor 4.9 percent of his team’s solo tackles in college and 8.4 percent of their TFLs. Lacks strength – blown off of blocks by wide receivers at times in college. Doesn’t have either upper-body strength to control the point of attack or lower-body strength to squeeze running lanes or maintain position. In few college circumstances where he attacked big ballcarriers, needed help from teammates to bring them down. Might be limited to special-teams only because of his body type.[/expand]
Check out the rest of the training camp guide:
Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
How to Watch Training Camp Drills
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)