Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Training Camp Position Preview: Linebackers

Daniel House analyzes the linebacker position and tells you why there is great depth in this group.

Updated: July 8th, 2014 12:24pm

By: Daniel House

The Vikings linebacker group has left little to be desired over the last few seasons. Many don't think the team did enough to address the linebacker position, but this is a myth. There's an immense amount of talent at this position, even before you add the upside of Anthony Barr to the equation. The Vikings drafted two linebackers in the 2013 draft and both of them have developed to the point of being serviceable starters or backups. Mike Zimmer is going to have plenty of talent to work with, making his roster decisions at this position very difficult. Who will provide depth and challenge for the final starting spot at linebacker? Let's take a look.

Chad Greenway: Greenway worked mainly on the strongside of the defense last year, but all indications point to him shifting to weakside linebacker and even kicking inside to the middle in some packages. The shift to the middle will be dependent upon how well Jasper Brinkley or Audie Cole are playing in that role. Greenway struggled in 2013, but has managed to put together solid seasons as a tackler in the past. The hope is that this was a brief regression where he may have been overcompensating for other mistakes among players in the linebacker corps. Greenway is one of the only veteran leaders remaining among this group and if he can be better in coverage and as a tackler, the Vikings linebacker group will benefit.

Anthony Barr: Barr was the one of the two Vikings first-round draft picks and many people are very excited to see what he can provide for the defense. He has some rawness to his game and with just two years of experience at linebacker while playing at UCLA, he will have some work ahead of him to transition to the NFL. His athletic ability might be just enough to make this a seamless move into the Vikings defensive scheme. Barr has insane acceleration skills and he is quick at changing direction in the second level. He needs work with instincts, but that will come with more playing time and experience at linebacker. Mike Zimmer will have many ways he can use Barr on defense. He could line up at linebacker or pass rush him like a defensive end. Zimmer is salivating when he looks at Barr's athletic ability and will turn him into a disruptive pass rusher with some time.

Mike Mauti: Mauti is a player entering his second season with the Vikings after spending most of his rookie year recovering from his second ACL tear. In multiple interviews this off-season, Mauti has indicated he is the most healthy he has been during his football career and he is ready to make an impact for the Vikings in 2014. I would like to see him start, but this job appears to be in the hands of Audie Cole or Jasper Brinkley. This could change if Mauti puts together a nice training camp and proves he is healthy. He isn't the best athlete, but his instincts are what separate him from other linebackers of similar abilities. Mauti is a fearless player and can shed blocks, while laying big hits on opposing running backs. Mike Zimmer will like his fearless style of play, but if he can't stay on the field and play a heavy amount of snaps, it won't matter.

Audie Cole: Cole could be a strong challenger to play middle linebacker in the Vikings 4-3 defensive scheme. I've always liked Cole since the Vikings drafted him out of N.C. State three years ago. In preseason action, he has shown above average coverage skills. Cole saw his first game action last year when he filled in for Erin Henderson in the middle of the defense. Again, his coverage skills flashed, but he struggled in aspects against the run. Cole isn't the most athletically gifted player, but he has a strong work ethic and the instincts to develop into the Vikings starting middle linebacker in 2014.

Gerald Hodges: Don't sleep on the Vikings future at linebacker with Gerald Hodges. He spent most of last season on special teams or deactivated, but when Chad Greenway departs, Hodges could be a successor on the weakside. I've heard some great things coming out of mini-camp about the strides Hodges has made in the off-season. He has great athleticism and displayed above average tackling skills at Penn State. Don't expect him to play very much at linebacker in 2014, but he will see a role on special teams, as the Vikings look to develop his skills for the future.

Jasper Brinkley: Brinkley is back for his second stint with the Vikings after spending 2013 with the Arizona Cardinals. He isn't the long-term answer at middle linebacker, but could bring some stability for the short-term. Brinkley is as slow as it gets in pass coverage, but he ranked rather well in run defense last year. Many believe Brinkley is a lock to start at middle linebacker, but this opinion shouldn't be the case. Mike Mauti and Audie Cole both will challenge for this job and depending upon their growth this off-season, they could oust Brinkley as a starter.

Larry Dean: Dean is one of the most solid special teams players that Vikings have had in recent seasons. He is a tough athlete, hard worker, and a talented tackler as a special teams ace. It's likely the team keeps Dean around, but if they find a player that can produce as a special teams ace and contribute as a linebacker, he could be replaced.

Brandon Watts: Watts is most known for running a blazing 4.41 40 time at his rookie pro-day. He is insanely athletic and can get sideline-to-sideline faster than most linebackers. I talked with Watts in May during the Vikings OTA's and he was very excited to be introduced to Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme. He was very open to playing on special teams frequently, which will likely be one of the keys to him making the team.

Dom DeCicco: DeCicco is a player many haven't heard about or even knew was on the Vikings 2014 training camp roster. He played for the Chicago Bears the last two seasons, but missed the majority of 2013 with injuries. He is a converted safety who has witnessed an extensive amount of reps on special teams. DeCicco could be one of the players that may oust Larry Dean of a roster spot in training camp. He saw game action in 2012 and entered the game frequently as a substitute for Brian Urlacher. DeCicco has the experience at linebacker, along with the special teams ability that might be enough for him to slide onto the roster. The only concern is injuries, which was the primary reason the Bears desired to part ways with him.

Mike Zimmer: Zimmer is was signed during Vikings mini-camp and is in no way related to head coach Mike Zimmer. He is going to have a steep battle to make a roster with a plethora of talented linebackers already in the fold. Zimmer failed to make the Jaguars roster last year and isn't the most athletic player you will see at linebacker. Special teams will be key and if he can show any skills in that avenue, anything could happen in regards to making the Vikings roster.

The myth that the Vikings don't have linebacker depth is completely false based upon the amount of experience and developmental talent they have at this position. Greenway and Barr are locks to start, but the middle linebacker spot will be a three horse race between Jasper Brinkley, Mike Mauti, and Audie Cole. As for the last two spots, special teams and play at linebacker will be the keys to landing those roles. It appears Watts, Hodges, DeCicco, and Dean will be in that camp and will need to take advantage of every rep they receive. The linebacker corps is deep and every player in this position group will need to be ready to battle when training camp arrives in just over two weeks.


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