MANKATO – Like ants marching in a row, a deeper, more athletic group of Vikings linebackers took turns backpedaling and sidestepping through a pass-coverage drill Friday afternoon.
First was the leader of the group, Chad Greenway, the two-time Pro Bowl player. Anthony Barr, a first-round pick last spring, was next. Gerald Hodges then flashed across the field, followed by Eric Kendricks and the man that rookie is competing with at middle linebacker, Audie Cole.
Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer nodded his head in approval.
Hours earlier, Zimmer, the son of head coach Mike Zimmer, stood in the shade created by a concrete wall equipped with blocking pads. He shared scouting reports on his linebackers, many of them young but talented. And he spoke with cautious optimism about what that group might accomplish in his second year on the job.
“You look around the [meeting] room and there’s a lot of guys that can play,” he said. “You probably couldn’t have said that last year. So I think the talent level is so much better than it was, and we’re excited about where we’re going.”
The Vikings brought back reliable Greenway, albeit at a reduced salary, and spent their second-round pick on Kendricks, a fluid but undersized defender who was named the NCAA’s top linebacker in 2014. They also watched youngsters such as Barr, Hodges and Cole get a year older and hopefully another year wiser.
“As far as talent level and guys that can jump in and play at any minute, we haven’t been this deep at the position in my 10 years,” Greenway said.
Depending on how a couple of critical position battles pan out over the next few weeks, the Vikings could have five linebackers taking on significant roles.
For now, Cole is getting the first-team reps between Greenway and Barr in the 4-3 base defense. Part of that is because Cole is more experienced than Kendricks, but it’s also because he opened eyes with his play in the 2014 season finale, leaving the coaches to wonder why that towering linebacker has shined in games but not always in practice.
Kendricks, the rangier of the two candidates to start at middle linebacker, has been with the second-stringers. Although his father in the past was hesitant to give some rookies sizable roles early, Adam Zimmer pointed out that Barr, who generated Defensive Rookie of the Year buzz last season before missing the final four games because of a knee injury, was an early-down player right away.
Even if Kendricks doesn’t show enough chops against the run to start in the base defense, he still could have an important role in the nickel package. After all, Jasper Brinkley, the so-called starter last season, played only 42.5 percent of the snaps.
During Friday’s practice, all five players received first-team reps when the defense trotted out its nickel sub packages. But Barr and Kendricks, former teammates and roommates at UCLA, got the bulk of those snaps.
Hodges, the primary backup at both Greenway’s weakside linebacker spot and for Barr on the strong side, could earn a unique role in a sub package that allows the Vikings to take advantage of his wheels and his nose for the football.
Beyond that quintet of potential contributors, recent draft picks Edmond Robinson, Brandon Watts and Michael Mauti are battling for the final roster spot, or spots, along with Josh Kaddu and former Canadian Football League standout Brian Peters.
“We’re more athletic than we were [in 2014],” Mike Zimmer said. “I like the size and the speed and athleticism of this group. We’ve got some guys that have a chance.”
Beyond Greenway, though, the rest of the linebackers, which have an average age of 25.1, are relatively inexperienced. Greenway, who at 32 is entering his 10th year with the Vikings, has played more games (124) than the rest of the linebacker group combined (102).
That is perhaps more reflective of the youth of this 10-man group and less of Greenway’s age. But it is amusing that even the baby-faced linebackers coach is a year younger than Greenway.
“I get to call him the old man, so that’s good,” Adam Zimmer said, chuckling.
The Vikings aren’t expected to solidify their depth chart anytime soon, not with six weeks of practice and five preseason games between now and the season opener in San Francisco.
Early in camp, Greenway told his fellow linebackers “just how special this group really could be.” Adam Zimmer cranked down the hype a little bit, but he does admit that he is looking forward to see which linebackers emerge as regular playmakers.
“I think we’ve got a lot of really good players that have a chance to play,” Zimmer said. “It will be exciting to see how we put it all together eventually.”