The Minnesota Vikings have undergone some serious changes this offseason already. They welcomed new head coach Mike Zimmer along with his two new coordinators Norv Turner and George Edwards who will coach offense and defensive respectively. The new coaching staff will make plenty of changes to the roster through both free agency and the draft, but first it’s important to look at the past season and review how current players performed.
Defense was the clear weak spot for the 5-10-1 Vikings as they gave away numerous games in the last seconds and allowed the second-most total yards in the entire league. The team’s linebackers didn’t do much to help the effort as Chad Greenway led the team in tackles once again but had the second-worst individual rating (-19.4) of any 4-3 outside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Greenway has consistently been a leader and performer on the defensive side of the ball, but this season was the worst of his eight-year career as he looked slower at times and took bad angles at others. Aside from Greenway, who played a team leading 1179 snaps, the linebacking corps for the Vikings had only one player register a positive grade — 1.0 or higher — from PFF. That was newcomer Desmond Bishop who played just 45 snaps before suffering yet another season-ending knee injury.
The one linebacker aside from Greenway to play more than 400 snaps this season was Erin Henderson who played 868 snaps and registered an average grade from PFF on his way to totaling 112 tackles and four sacks. Unfortunately, Henderson has been arrested for two DWI’s in the last three months and is unlikely to be donning the Viking purple and gold for much longer.
The Vikings did see somewhat of an emergence from Audie Cole in his 332 snaps as he recorded a 3.5 PFF rating in pass coverage and filled in nicely as the team’s middle linebacker towards the end of the season. Cole just finished his second NFL season meaning he will be returning for another year and possibly playing a bigger role on an improved defense.
The rest of the team’s linebackers didn’t see enough playing time to be judged fairly, but rookies Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges should expect to get a fair shake at a starting role with a new coaching staff in place. The two combined for just 13 snaps this season, but considering both were highly regarded leading up to the draft I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one was playing a significant role in 2014.
Throughout the season it was made clear the Vikings no longer have a star at the linebacker position, and with the team picking No. 8 overall in a draft loaded with top-end linebacker talent — Anthony Barr, Khalil Mack, C.J. Mosely — it’s very realistic that Zimmer will build the defense from the middle out.
As it stands now the Vikings have a relatively deep linebacking corps, especially if they bring back Bishop, but an upgrade is clearly needed if the Vikings hope to compete in an always tough NFC North. There is still plenty of time between now and next season, but the linebacker position is one to keep an eye on for a Vikings team looking to rebuild their defense.