Roy (Moonie) Winston was taken out of LSU as the 45th overall selection by the Vikings in the 1962 NFL draft. He became the starter at left-side linebacker in 1963 and still was there in 1973.
Wally Hilgenberg played in Detroit for four years before being traded to Pittsburgh in 1968. The Steelers waived him before he played a game and the former Iowa Hawkeye was claimed by the Vikings. He moved in at right-side linebacker during the ’68 season and still was there in 1973.
Winston was a master of being in the right place. Hilgenberg had a more reckless streak, and at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, he carried a wallop as a tackler.
Yet, the speed of the game was ever-increasing. Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain became the prototype for defenses built around younger, faster and larger athletes.
Coach Bud Grant certainly enjoyed the stability of what was one of NFL’s all-time great defenses. Bud also was an all-time great when it came to being a realist, and was fully aware of this:
The 1974 season opened at Green Bay on Sept. 15. That would be Winston’s 34th birthday. Hilgenberg would turn 32 four days later.
I’m guessing that Bud’s suggestion to General Manager Jim Finks before the 1974 NFL draft in late January was this concise: “You better get us a linebacker or two.”
The Vikings had two choices in the first round. They took Fred McNeill, a linebacker from UCLA, at No. 17, and then Southern Cal tackle Steve Riley at No. 25. They took receiver John Holland from Tennessee State early in the second round (No. 29), and then linebacker Matt Blair from Iowa State (No. 51).
“You didn’t see linebackers as big as Matt in those days,” Scott Studwell said. “He was 6-foot-5 and over 230, and he could run. Fred wasn’t as big as Matt, 6-2 and 230, but he was even faster.
“That was quite a pair. It was a privilege to play with them.”
Studwell was a standout middle linebacker, with Blair and McNeill on his outside, for five seasons from 1980 to 1984. Studwell’s career ended as the Vikings’ all-time leading tackler in 1990.
He went to work in the Vikings’ football department, and ran college scouting for a dozen years, before cutting back on his duties in May 2014. Two weeks before that, Studwell was on board with the selection of UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr (No. 9) in the first round.
Had Studwell seen a thicker version of Blair when scouting Barr?
“There was more projection with Anthony than I assume there was with Matt back then,” Studwell said. “Barr was playing more of an end position at UCLA. We were confident, but you still have to see a player dealing with the speed of the NFL game to be certain.
“I’m still kind of amazed at how soon Anthony was ready to play as a ‘Sam’ [strong-side linebacker] in this league.”
There’s an idea that coach Mike Zimmer is slow to break in rookies. It took cornerback Trae Waynes a long time to get on the field in 2015. Receiver Laquon Treadwell didn’t get off the sideline Sunday.
But in case you have forgotten, Barr started the opener at strong-side linebacker for first-year head coach Zimmer in 2014. He was the NFC defensive player of the week after a game with Tampa Bay in midseason.
Long-time Vikings followers can’t avoid flashbacks to Blair (this franchise’s best linebacker ever) when watching Barr.
So where does the comparison to McNeill enter into this? That’s not as clear, since the noble veteran, Chad Greenway, is officially the starter at Fred’s position, weak-side linebacker.
Then again, I did notice Eric Kendricks playing outside the edge a couple of times Sunday at Tennessee. As the Mike (middle) linebacker, he’s as apt to cover a tight end or run with a back coming out of the backfield as his cohorts.
The Vikings used one draft to keep pace with the demands of a faster NFL game in the mid-’70s, landing McNeill and Blair as first- and second-rounders in 1974. The current Vikings used two drafts to do the same in the mid-2010s, with Barr at No. 9 in 2014, and then Kendricks in the second round (No. 45) in 2015.
They have gone from UCLA teammates to three-down linebackers helping to make this Vikings defense a handful for most every quarterback, perhaps even Aaron Rodgers.
“Kendricks went in the second round because he’s 6-foot,” Studwell said. “In a perfect world, you might want a ‘Mike’ a bit bigger with Eric, but with his instincts for the ball, we’re not complaining. He’s a playmaker.”
Those instincts led to such a brilliant opener for Kendricks that he now has an NFC defensive player of the week award to match Barr’s from 2014.
Plus, when you’re getting praise from Studwell, a linebacker with 1,981 regular-season tackles, those are definitely exceptional instincts.