Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s history suggests rookie Ben Gedeon has a slim chance to start Week 1, because, well, he plays defense under Mike Zimmer.
Only two rookies since 2009 have started the season opener for Zimmer’s defenses in Minnesota and Cincinnati. They’re linebackers Anthony Barr and Rey Maualuga. Others, such as Vontaze Burfict and Eric Kendricks, played big roles as rookies, but didn’t start Week 1.
Will Gedeon, the fourth-round pick out of Michigan, become the third?
“He’s got as good a chance as anybody,” said linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son.
The Vikings have made sure to get long looks at him during this preseason, starting Gedeon in consecutive exhibitions after Edmond Robinson got the first start in Buffalo. Producing hasn’t hurt his chances. Gedeon ranks second among Vikings defenders with 11 tackles in 83 defensive snaps this preseason.
Eight of those tackles Gedeon made on running backs. Run defense is where the eventual starting weak-side linebacker, a role vacated by the retired Chad Greenway, will be leaned on while playing a part-time job in Zimmer’s base 4-3 front.
“Every time you look up, there he is making the tackle,” Adam Zimmer said. “That’s the name of the game, tackle the guy with the ball. He’s done a really good job of that. He’s done well in the classroom, too, learning a couple different positions.”
Starters typically don’t play the preseason finale. Regardless of his eventual role, Gedeon said coaches have told him he’ll be playing Thursday night against the Dolphins. One more look at Gedeon, Robinson and potentially Emmanuel Lamur, who is recovering from a concussion, might help sway the coaching staff’s mind on its third starting linebacker.
“This will be a good week to get these guys in there one more time and finish the process,” Mike Zimmer said.
Gedeon might not have a long-term future at outside linebacker, anyway. Mike Zimmer said he sees Gedeon — carrying a compacted 245 pounds at 6-foot-2 — as more of a middle linebacker down the road, but playing him on the outside has given the Vikings a chance to see him more.
“He is probably a Mike [middle] linebacker,” Mike Zimmer said. “But you know, we’re just trying to get the guys in there that can play. I figure if we’re playing 30 percent base, you know it’s a chance to get him in the game more. He’s done a good job in there. Like all rookies, he made some mistakes, so we’re trying to clean those up. But he’s pretty conscientious about all that.”
Zimmer added: “The thing I like most about him is he’s an old-school kind of guy. He’s tough, finds the football, gets off blocks well.”
Perhaps the Vikings already decided to start a veteran in Robinson or Lamur, and Gedeon’s preseason run with the starters is a way of seeing what they’ve got in the 22-year-old. Or maybe the competition is as wide open as they’ve said.
“I’m taking it day-by-day,” Gedeon said. “This next game is the biggest game right now. Wherever I fit into the lineup, we’ll see. I’m just trying to improve.”
The Vikings were drawn to Gedeon at the 120th-overall pick because of his willingness to play whichever position and his passion for football. The Hudson, Ohio, native is the third of four Gedeon children and the youngest of three brothers, behind Alex and Sam, who all played football at some level. However, Ben is the one who made it to the NFL, presenting him with another mountain to climb after waiting until his senior season to be the Wolverines starting middle linebacker.
Gedeon still contributed as a special teams standout and made his mark as a senior. He was named second-team All-Big Ten with 106 tackles.
“He just kind of has the same characteristics as Eric [Kendricks],” Adam Zimmer said. “He’s fast off the spot. He reacts to things quickly, and he finds the ball.”
That’s some high praise. Like Gedeon, Mike Zimmer also first thought Kendricks, the Vikings’ budding star linebacker, wasn’t fit for his initial position. But Kendricks since changed Zimmer’s mind that he’s an NFL middle linebacker by leading the Vikings in tackles each of his two seasons.
“Playing linebacker all my life, you start getting that instinctual part of the game,” Gedeon said. “But this [NFL] step is definitely another step for me. I think I’ve got a lot to improve on.”