This week, we are taking a look at the makeup of each position group on the 2019 Vikings. That means who returned, who is new and who departed that needs replacing. Next up, the linebackers.
Returning Full-Time Starters: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks
Returning Significant Rotation Players: Ben Gedeon*, Eric Wilson
Returning Depth: Kentrell Brothers, Reshard Cliett, Devante Downs
Veteran Additions: None
Rookies: Greer Martini, Cameron Smith
*Gedeon is technically the starting Will linebacker, but the Vikings spend upwards of 70 percent of their defensive snaps in nickel/dime packages.
The Vikings’ cap situation kept them largely out of major free agent rumors, but a sudden turn of events returned them to the forefront. Anthony Barr’s about-face with the Jets meant that the Vikings A) retained one of their most important defensive players and B) did not need to invest high draft capital in the linebacker position. As such, Minnesota is returning all four of their key rotation players.
Barr and Kendricks have been anchors of the Vikings defense since 2015, so level of play should see little dip in 2019. Granted, both had their moments of coverage lapses, particularly Kendricks when defending backs out of the backfield. But Rams game aside, Barr was one of the better coverage linebackers in football last year. And on top of that, his movability and versatility are the cornerstones for Mike Zimmer’s defense. Keeping him aboard was clearly paramount to the Vikings’ 2019 plans, otherwise they would not have invested such a steep price tag to retain him. Barr draws considerably ire from Vikings fans, given his lower tackle numbers and the three touchdowns surrendered in Los Angeles. Zimmer obviously shares none of that ire.
As for Gedeon and Wilson, they are above all two of the best kick coverage players Minnesota has. They consistently rank among the better special teams players in the league, per Pro Football Focus, while also filling vital defensive roles. Gedeon is officially a starter in base defense and has excellent run defense instincts. Wilson is more of a spell and injury replacement, but his explosive play style gives him a discount-Anthony Barr effect.
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The three returning depth players have all had their roles and their chances to crack the 53-man roster. Cliett has consistently played well in preseason, but has yet to crack the active roster at any point. Downs got the call last year as a rookie due to Brothers’ suspension, but Brothers has played 38 games for the Vikings since 2016. However, with four names near locks to make the roster this year and two rookies in camp, their chances of retaining their fringe standing may be slimmer this year.
Cameron Smith was a fifth-round pick and is coming off a tremendously productive USC career. He has shown himself to be an instinctive and explosive, if a touch undersized, off-ball linebacker who blends many of the traits Zimmer loves. If his college career is any indication, Smith could have a shot to even push Gedeon for a starting spot. We will learn early on how Smith’s USC production translates to NFL defense. The other rookie is undrafted free agent Greer Martini from Notre Dame. Martini does not possess the pedigree nor the physical traits of Smith. That said, he took a significant step in his senior year and could be a solid development piece.
One thing on the linebackers’ side is the fact that the secondary pool on the back end is a complete unknown. It is possible that Minnesota sees more from the young linebackers than the young secondary, and thus keeps fewer defensive backs for special teams. That would leave potentially six spots open to linebackers.
Overall, Minnesota is solid through its top four at this position. They have continuity and familiarity on their side with at least four returners to the linebacker unit, and for the most part, consistent play top to bottom.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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