Leading into the NFL Draft starting Thursday, April 25th, the Star Tribune will assess the Vikings roster, draft history and college prospects during this eight-part series.
Eight linebackers in five drafts have answered calls from the Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer. It’s a pretty secure bet another will be selected during next week’s NFL Draft. Anthony Barr’s five-year extension keeps him and Eric Kendricks together through the 2023 season, at most. But depth could use reinforcements. Eric Wilson started four games last season for both Barr and Kendricks, perhaps quelling some concerns Zimmer voiced during training camp about his linebacker depth. Wilson, not signed beyond this season, was played mostly as a cover linebacker while Ben Gedeon is primarily a run defender. Kentrell Brothers, who is entering his contract year but may face competition to make the roster, saw his special teams-only roles decrease last season.
The Vikings’ talent evaluators have sifted through options, hosting former Cornhuskers linebacker Luke Gifford on a top-30 visit this month. Former Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman was part of the Vikings’ local prospect day. Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer led the West team in the East-West Shrine Game. He also conducted drills at Wisconsin’s pro day, where the team met with linebackers Ryan Connelly (of Eden Prairie) and Andrew Van Ginkel.
Level of need
No. 5. With only one experienced rotational linebacker signed beyond this season, the Vikings may look to add a draftee (or two) to bolster depth, special teams and possibly competition for the No. 3 job. However it’s done, they’ll add linebackers. The Vikings took 11 into training camp a year ago and currently have eight on the roster.
Anthony Barr (2023)
Eric Kendricks (2023)
Eric Wilson (2019)
Ben Gedeon (2020)
Kentrell Brothers (2019)
Devante Downs (2021)
Reshard Cliett (2020)
Greer Martini (2021)
LB Devante Downs (2018, 225th overall)
LB Ben Gedeon (2017, 120th overall)
LB Elijah Lee (2017, 232nd overall)
LB Kentrell Brothers (2016, 160th overall)
LB Eric Kendricks (2015, 45th overall)
LB Edmond Robinson (2015, 232nd overall)
Don’t forget about
Eric Wilson. In two years since going undrafted out of Cincinnati, Wilson has become a core special teamer and spot starter. He should have chances in 2019 to ascend further with another summer and four NFL starts under his belt. Zimmer has likened Wilson’s learning curve to Eric Kendricks, who got a better grip on his speed, timing and angles with experience. Wilson added weight and grew into form during his second NFL campaign, and now he’ll be expected to take another step.
Five names to know
Germaine Pratt, North Carolina State: Pratt (pictured above) was first-team All-ACC during his redshirt senior season with 10.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. A former safety who has just two seasons at linebacker. Pratt (6-2, 240 pounds) is an athletic prospect with speed and range that could translate well to the NFL, perhaps as an outside linebacker. Good cover linebackers are always in high demand.
Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii: In the NFL, Tavai will face a steep jump in competition from the Mountain West, but he’s likely to be an intriguing athlete in a physically smaller LB class. Tavai (6-2, 250 pounds) looks the part. Draft analysts say he’s got the skills to be a three-down NFL linebacker after displaying power and nimble feet in college. Teams will have to rely on his film, since Tavai was unable to participate in the combine due to a shoulder injury.
Drew Lewis, Colorado: The cousin of Louis Riddick, the former NFL personnel director and ESPN analyst, Lewis comes from a football lineage. His brother, Ryan, is a Bills cornerback. His father, Will, is a former player and personnel evaluator. And Lewis (6-2, 229 pounds) is another hyper-athletic prospect who reportedly ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Snubbed from the combine.
Blake Cashman, Minnesota: A former walk-on with the Gophers who didn’t play linebacker until the playoffs of his senior season at Eden Prairie, Cashman has emerged quickly on the NFL’s radar. He performed well last fall for Minnesota and at the combine, where he ranked top five in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump and 20-yard shuttle. Cashman (6-1, 237 pounds) projects as an outside linebacker and special teams contributor.
Ryan Connelly, Wisconsin: Cashman’s former teammate at Eden Prairie, Connelly emerged as the Badgers leading tackler two seasons ago. His rise during five seasons at Wisconsin should attract teams looking for a motivated climber. There are questions about whether Connelly (6-2, 242 pounds) has the speed to play outside linebacker in the NFL, making him a possible inside backer/backup.
How it’ll happen
Our best guess is another mid-round linebacker will join the Vikings to provide another long-term option behind Barr and Kendricks. This 2019 linebacker class is lacking at top-end talent, but should provide plenty of options for depth in the middle of the draft.