The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the linebackers.
Get excited: Outside linebacker Chad Greenway turned 30 last Saturday. But don’t worry. His career is still very much on the upswing heading into its eighth season. He has led the Vikings in tackles in each of the past five years and shows no signs of letting go of the top spot after finishing with 191 stops and reaching his second Pro Bowl this season.
It’s easy to see why Adrian Peterson sought Greenway’s advice during his knee rehab last offseason. People forget that Greenway’s career once was in jeopardy, too. A first-round pick in 2006, he tore an ACL in his first preseason game at the Metrodome. But Greenway not only came back, he’s been a better player in each of his next six seasons. And although the big 3-0 has arrived, Greenway still has a lot of juice left in his legs. Meanwhile, he’s a smarter player, a better leader and is more comfortable than ever in what’s essentially been the same defensive system throughout his NFL career.
The Vikings should consider moving Greenway to the deep middle backer position in the nickel, a key spot on the field in passing situations. He has the range and intelligence to play it. He also has the experience because he plays that spot in the dime. Of course, moving Greenway to the middle in the nickel would require finding someone to play Greenway’s current position in that defense. Not easy.
Keep an eye on: You need at least three eyes for this one. The Vikings have seven linebackers. Three of them – Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley and Marvin Mitchell -- are unrestricted free agents. Henderson and Brinkley are starters. Mitchell is the most experienced backup. So, yeah, things could look dramatically different when the team meets up in Mankato in seven months.
The Vikings say they have interest in all three linebackers. But this is the time of year when they say they have interest in all their free agents. Truth is, they do have interest in them, but they’ll also have wandering eyes. Both Henderson and Brinkley are solid players well shy of their 30th birthdays. They played well on a team that won 10 games and made the playoffs. So they’re comfortable options, assuming they even want to return.
That might not be the case with Henderson. He wasn’t happy when he didn’t get a long-term deal last offseason, so he’s more likely to take comparable money from another team. Brinkley, meanwhile, is more likely to want to return if he feels comfortable that the team is comfortable with him as the long-term answer at middle linebacker.
With the contract of two starters up, the Vikings might want to take the opportunity to upgrade the position and further the youth movement. Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will be long gone by the time the Vikings pick 23rd overall. But what about Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o? (Name rings a bell, eh?).
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. still has Te’o going eighth overall to the Bills. But who knows where Te’o will end up once he’s been put through the pre-draft torture chamber, which is sure to be amped up even more for him. Who knows how the bizarre girlfriend hoax story will affect his draft stock. Personally, the feeling here is the multiple missed tackles and all those poor angles in the national championship game will affect his stock more than the phony girlfriend story.
Other possibilities at No. 23 if the Vikings don’t go receiver are inside linebackers Alec Ogletree of Georgia and Kevin Minter of LSU. Ogletree presumably would have to fall since Kiper now has him going No. 13 to Tampa Bay. (Of course, if there’s one thing that can be learned over 20-some years of watching this stuff unfold, it’s this: Players don’t always go where we sports media folks say they will. And when they don’t, we regroup and say the team picking the player either “reached” or got a “steal.” Then it takes about three years for reality to unfold. And by then, no one remembers anything.)
Reason for worry: Besides 2/3rds of the current crop of starting LBers being without a contract, let’s see …
Depth also is a concern, especially with Mitchell also not under contract. Mitchell isn’t a standout player, but he did start in place of a concussed Henderson when the Vikings pulled that Week 3 stunner against the 49ers. Don’t know if you noticed, but the 49ers are a pretty physical, hard-running group. And Mitchell held his own.
Meanwhile, Larry Dean is Greenway’s backup. You have to love Dean’s story: The undersized D-II kid who made it to the NFL. Larry is an outstanding special teams player, but the defense most likely would be in big trouble if he were forced to step in for Greenway.
At middle linebacker, the backup is Audie Cole, who made the team basically because he returned two interceptions for touchdowns seconds apart in a preseason rout of the Bills. Cole has the height, speed and range you’d like to see in a middle linebacker in a Tampa 2-based scheme. But who knows how raw he really is. He was active for only five games and didn’t post a stat of any kind.
Listed third at middle linebacker is Tyrone McKenzie. He led the team in special teams tackles (20) before a shoulder injury kept him out of the playoff loss at Green Bay. At 26, he could be a special teams leader for a few more years.
But, overall, the only untouchable on the roster at linebacker is Greenway. Any other spot is open to turnover.
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