|Photo: 24/7 Sports|
As Vikings training camp quickly approaches, it is worth considering a few position groups that will need young contributors to step up. Daniel House explains why linebacker is a really important position the Vikings must develop.
As Vikings training camp quickly approaches, it is worth considering a few position groups that will need young contributors to step up. The one glaring area is at linebacker. Outside of the top starters, the overall depth takes a significant decline.
Eric Kendricks played in 97 percent of last season’s defensive snaps and Anthony Barr finished at 93 percent. After playing more than 900 snaps each in 2017, it’s important to have options available in the event an injury occurs. Ben Gedeon can handle the weak side linebacker duties in the base 4-3 defense and consistently improved every week in 2017. He will be tasked with reserve duties behind Barr and Kendricks in nickel packages, but outside of that, the linebacker position becomes extremely inexperienced.
Veteran Kentrell Brothers is suspended for the first four games due to a performance enhancing drug violation. This leaves a dent in the depth not only at linebacker, but on the special teams units.
Of the seven other linebackers in the position group, none have more than two years of NFL experience.
Eric Wilson was talented enough to be drafted in 2017, but fell into the free agency pool. He was a contributor on special teams last year and it’s one of the key factors that locked him into a roster spot. Wilson was a sound downhill run defender at Cincinnati and had enough athleticism to provide value on special teams. He is very reactive and has light feet and quickness to make play in space. Wilson needed to add additional weight, while improving his coverage skills this year. His experience will be needed not only on defense, but via special teams as Brothers serves his suspension.
The only other player with any level experience is linebacker Antwione Williams. Williams, a 2016 fifth-round pick, appeared in 14 games (3 starts) for the Detroit Lions. He was a surprise roster cut before last season. A combination of injuries and a lack of contribution on special teams led Detroit to cut ties. The Vikings quickly signed him to the practice squad last September. Williams spent time developing with the coaching staff during the entire season, which will serve him well in 2018. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, he provides nice size, length and athletic ability to play as a reserve in the Vikings’ system. He entered the league out of Georgia Southern and needed polishing. Mike Zimmer has consistently proven he and his defensive staff can elevate players with this type of athletic profile and small school background. Williams is a great scheme fit and will be worth monitoring in training camp and the preseason.
Reshard Cliett, a sixth-round pick by the Texans in 2015 hasn’t appeared in a single game. He signed with the team in late March and fits the athletic profile of linebackers the Vikings value. Cliett has 4.47 speed and the range to be a sound coverage linebacker from sideline-to-sideline. He showed off his pursuit skills during his time at South Florida, but injuries have put a damper on Cliett’s ability to sustain success.
The Vikings also spent a seventh-round draft pick on California linebacker Devante Downs. He was extremely productive despite injuries impacting a large part of his college career. Downs put up monstrous numbers while missing a handful of games each year. He notched 212 career tackles (14.5 for loss), 8.0 sacks and five interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, Downs had the highest pass rushing productivity rating (21.7) among Pac-12 inside linebackers last season. He was sent via the blitz quite often and has the potential to be used in creative ways as a sub-package pass rusher. He’s a very explosive athlete and you see it when he’s sent off the blitz or reads and reacts to close on plays in space. Watch him blitz up the A-gap to finish the sack against Ole Miss.
Downs moves really well in and out of his backpedal and made numerous splash plays in coverage because of it. He finished a few interceptions because of his ability to back pedal/move well, follow the quarterback's eyes and use his athleticism. The play below is just one example.
At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he has all of the desirable measurements and athletic traits. He was limited during the entire draft process due to a knee injury. Downs is still working his way back in Vikings practices, but should be getting closer as training camp approaches. It was worth taking a flyer on an extremely productive player who could develop into a future option if he can manage to stay healthy.
Finally, Garret Dooley is the second Power-5 player the Vikings added to the linebacker room. An undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin, Dooley was more of a pass rushing backer in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. He isn’t an above average athlete, which is a shift from the type of player the Vikings usually prioritize. However, he is a very detail-oriented player who wins with his ability to covert speed to power. Dooley uses his hands very well and has enough upper body strength to finesse opposing offensive tackles when sent off the edge. He was used extensively as a blitzer, so it will be particularly interesting to see how he handles more coverage responsibilities at the next level. You’ll notice this in the film I cut after watching back a few of his games:
The LB position is one area where UDFAs could make the #Vikings roster. Wisconsin's Garret Dooley is strong and uses his hands very well to rush the passer. As you'll see below, he's super effective when stunting and blitzing. He has enough experience dropping in coverage, too. pic.twitter.com/rHIKQ8EhSH— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) May 7, 2018
With the door wide-open to claim depth spots on the Vikings’ roster, Dooley could place himself in the roster conversation with a strong camp.
As you probably have noticed, a main theme associated with the depth spots at linebacker is inexperience and durability concerns. There are players on the roster with upside, but keeping them healthy and unlocking their potential will be critical as the Vikings try to maximize the current depth available.