Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, let’s take a glance at the linebackers.
We knew first-year head coach Mike Zimmer would be looking for a different style of linebacker than the Vikings had in their Cover Two days under former coach Leslie Frazier. That belief was confirmed on the first night of the draft when the Vikings selected Anthony Barr, a disruptive pass rusher from UCLA, with their first pick of the draft.
The selection of Barr surprised some because a number of draft analysts had pegged him as a better fit for a 3-4 defense. But it didn’t take long for Barr to make the Vikings look good for their selection. The rookie made a number of big plays in the first half of the season, none bigger than his walk-off touchdown in the overtime win over the Buccaneers.
The Vikings started a pair of veterans in Chad Greenway and Jasper Brinkley alongside Barr. Greenway, though, battled a few injuries — including painful broken ribs, which snapped his lengthy Ironman streak — and Father Time. Brinkley was serviceable in a run-stopping role.
Injuries to Barr and Greenway created opportunities for Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole. Both showed flashes of starting potential as reserves, but the team might again have to add talent at linebacker this offseason.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Barr was garnering NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year hype when a knee injury ended his season prematurely. While his tackling left more to be desired, Barr was a playmaker all over the field, including in coverage, which was a pleasant surprise to those outside the organization. Barr looked like a future star while filled the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three recoveries in 12 games. And while there are no guarantees, one can expect Barr to be better in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings are entering another offseason with a need at middle linebacker. Brinkley was serviceable in 2014 while playing at the league minimum, but the Vikings, not trusting him to cover, had to remove him from the field when they used their nickel package. He ended up playing just 42.5 percent of the snaps despite being a starter. The Vikings would like to have a three-down middle linebacker, giving them the flexibility to stay in their base defense more if those chose. Those guys are tough to find.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Barr led the way with a plus-9.3 grade. Cole, thanks to strong performances in Week 16 and 17, was right behind him at plus-8.7. Hodges was a plus-8.4. And Brinkley was a plus-2.5 (he was a plus-7.7 against the run). On the flip side, Greenway was a negative-15.9, the worst grade among all Vikings defenders.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 33 — defensive stops for Barr, most on the team according to PFF.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: One of the toughest decisions the Vikings must make, at least from an emotional standpoint, is whether to keep Greenway. The 32-year-old is scheduled to have a cap hit of $8.8 million in 2015, which is simply too high for his production. Greenway, who took a $1 million pay cut to remain with the team in 2014, has said he wants to finish his career with the Vikings and is willing to take another pay cut to stick around, though he does have limits for how much salary he is willing to sacrifice. Brinkley is an unrestricted free agent who could also be gone, but at the very least he could bring value as a backup.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Moderate. Led by Barr, the Vikings have some talented youngsters at the position. It’s unclear if Hodges and Cole can be full-time starters, but they certainly have earned opportunities to compete for a starting job in the offseason. Rookie outside linebacker Brandon Watts is also an intriguing prospect. But, as I wrote above, the Vikings lack a true every-down middle linebacker (yes, Cole has played some middle linebacker, but that might not be his best position in the pros). The Vikings will look to find a middle linebacker who can both defend the run and cover. That would take care of two problems: upgrading over Brinkley and finding a way to keep Greenway out of the nickel package — should he return in 2015.