The competition along the Vikings offensive line during spring practices and down in Mankato will garner much more attention with potentially three starting spots up for grabs, but their linebacker group is crowded, too, which should set up some interesting battles for roster spots.
Since coach Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014, the Vikings have selected two linebackers in each of the past three drafts (though 2016 seventh-round pick Stephen Weatherly will start his pro career at defensive end).
Strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr, their top pick in 2014, made the Pro Bowl last season as an injury replacement and is on the cusp of stardom. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks impressed as a rookie last season.
Those two are expected to be every-down linebackers again in 2016.
Chad Greenway is back for one more season and is the favorite to start at the weak-side linebacker spot. But free-agent acquisition Emmanuel Lamur, who played for Zimmer in Cincinnati, could push him at that spot.
The Vikings also added former Lions outside linebacker Travis Lewis, a special-teams standout, and re-signed 2012 seventh-rounder Audie Cole to a one-year deal. Neither has much guaranteed money in his deal.
Those two veterans will compete with recent draft picks Brandon Watts, Edmond Robinson and Kentrell Brothers, a fifth-round pick last month, for the final two or three roster spots at the linebacker position. Rookie free agent Jake Ganus also has a chance to work his way into the mix.
While their potential on defense will be a factor in the competition, their ability, or lack thereof, to contribute on special teams may figure in more prominently. Lewis and Cole have been core players at the pro level and the Vikings believe Brothers can be a special-teams stud, too.
The battle among these linebacker bubble boys may go under the radar due to the all of attention that will rightfully be placed on the offensive line. But it figures to be among the most heated competitions this spring and summer and probably won’t be settled until the end of the preseason.