This off-season presented quite the scare for Minnesota Vikings fans. Anthony Barr was rumored to have signed with the New York Jets before a late change of heart. The defense is back and ready to carry the team in 2019. After looking at the secondary in the last segment of this series, it is time to move down a level. Here is a look at the Minnesota Vikings linebackers as we head into the 2019 season.
The Minnesota Vikings Linebackers as Things Stand
The Vikings have talent across the defense. They have Pro Bowlers at each level, but their linebackers are the glue that holds it all together. Barr is a Swiss Army knife; he can blitz, cover, and defend the run. He possesses great speed and fluidity all over the field. Barr took a slightly lower contract to return to Minnesota and finish what he started. Eric Kendricks is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, and the Vikings rewarded him with a long-term contract as well. Kendricks recently re-structured his deal to make room for 2019 first-round pick Garrett Bradbury under the salary cap. The former UCLA Bruins have held down the middle of Minnesota’s defense for several years now, and they aren’t going anywhere.
Beyond those two, the Vikings lack any depth at linebacker. No other linebacker on the team was drafted prior to day three of the draft. Aside from special teams contributions, they haven’t produced much of note on defense. Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson have split time as the third linebacker, but neither has stood out by any means. Kentrell Brothers, Reshard Cliett, and Devante Downs have limited (if any) experience in the NFL. Rookies Cameron Smith and Greer Martini will have a chance to make a name for themselves in training camp.
What to Expect in 2019
Barr and Kendricks will lead the middle of the defense again in 2019. Since being drafted in back-to-back drafts, they have manned down the front seven in Minnesota. Barr has been a force on the defense ever since he stepped foot on an NFL field. His rookie season was phenomenal as he finished with 70 tackles, four sacks, and three fumble recoveries. And that was just the start. Barr has been a Pro Bowler in each of the last four seasons. He has 13.5 sacks and 30 tackles for a loss over his career. Barr has also forced seven fumbles and recovered four. He knows how to get to the quarterback, with 31 quarterback hits. His return to Minnesota after seemingly striking a deal with the Jets is great news for the Vikings.
Kendricks has led the team in tackles in each of his four seasons in the NFL. He racked up at least 100 total tackles in each of the last three seasons. But he is much more important than that. During his four years, Kendricks has four interceptions and has returned two of them for touchdowns. He also has 8.5 sacks and 30 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Kendricks has shown his ability to defend the pass with his 23 career pass deflections. There is no denying that Kendricks is an under-appreciated leader of one of the best defenses in the entire league.
The third linebacker spot is up for grabs, but the Vikings do not utilize a third very often. While they lack depth at the position, they do not necessarily need a ton of bodies. Instead, the focus on the rest of the roster and play extra defensive backs on passing downs. Today’s NFL offenses are heavily focused on the passing game, and defenses are adjusting. The Vikings have built their defense to have depth in the secondary and haven’t put much emphasis on their linebackers.
A Closer Look
As referenced in our look at the secondary, Jayron Kearse may be moved to linebacker in training camp. Kearse is a versatile piece on the Minnesota defense. He has a ton of length and speed that enable him to cover the field well. Kearse can play in sub-packages as a nickel backer.
Barr made an immediate impact with the Vikings. We have seen his versatility at linebacker. Here are a few plays that show his skill set. First up, a trip down memory lane. In his rookie season, Barr forced a fumble and recovered it himself, then took it to the house for a game-winning score. After being beat in coverage, Barr did not give up on the play. Instead, he ran the ball-carrier down, stripped the ball, and saved the day.
As excited as I am for the #Vikings to extend Diggs soon, I am just as excited for the Vikings to lock up Anthony Barr long-term as well.
Throwback to when Barr forced, recovered and returned a fumble for a walk-off touchdown a few years back: pic.twitter.com/9EHC1NBLOT
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) July 19, 2018
In 2015, Barr made one of the best plays of the season for the Vikings. Tevin Coleman busted what appeared to be a long run. However, Barr chased him 45 yards down the field and punched the ball out. Coleman is one of the fastest running backs in the league, but Barr had the speed to run him down.
Heads up play by Anthony Barr.#MINvsATLhttps://t.co/mKi7wLxtbd
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 29, 2015
Continuing the theme of speed, watch as Barr runs down Ty Montgomery here. On a quick screen, Barr is able to burst outside and run down the ball-carrier. His sideline-to-sideline speed is crucial. He beats the blockers to the edge and forces Montgomery to bounce outside. Instead of a first down, the play is stopped short because of Barr’s recognition and speed.
This is the Anthony Barr fans want. Running sideline-to-sideline making plays all over the field. Great play here. pic.twitter.com/J2IxbKgDWu
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) June 7, 2017
Barr is also a rushing stud. When he’s not in coverage, he can blitz the A-gap or rush off the edge. The abundance of stars on defense makes it easy, sure, but Barr is a great pass rusher. He disguises his rushes well and finds the gap. Watch here as he creeps at the last moment and gets in the backfield.
Untouched. @AnthonyBarr comes up with the sack on 3rd down. #BALvsMIN pic.twitter.com/w3oVOxDcCg
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 22, 2017
Finally, Barr presents power and a will to win. This final clip shows him decimate a blocker and blow up the run play. He didn’t get the tackle, but Barr was responsible for the stop.
Anthony Barr knocked Larry Donnell into another time zone
(Video via @AlbertBreer) #NYGvsMIN pic.twitter.com/vNTXwBbHQJ
— Will Applebee (@NOTSCWill) October 4, 2016
Kendricks is the perfect complement to Barr. He brings speed and coverage ability to the middle of the field. Kendricks diagnoses plays immediately and simply beats everyone else to the spot. As we see in this first clip, Kendricks follows the left guard’s movement and shoots the gap to make the play in the backfield. He finds the hole and meets the running back before he can get to the edge. Plays like this are why Kendricks continually leads the team in tackles.
It’s easy to see why MIN wanted to keep Eric Kendricks for the long-term. His ability to read and diagnose plays is ridiculous.
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) June 3, 2018
The same is true in this clip. Kendricks shadows the offensive line and reads the play right off the bat. Once the running back has the ball, he shoots for the gap to blow the play up. His quick recognition and burst allow him to beat everyone to the hole and make the stop. Kendricks is truly one of the best tackling linebackers in the NFL, especially in the run game.
#TeachTapeTuesday via #Vikings LB Eric Kendricks showing impressive burst & taking an excellent pursuit angle for a TFL: pic.twitter.com/Mr5EC5AZYQ
— The Scouting Academy (@TheScoutAcademy) September 4, 2018
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Kendricks is phenomenal in pass coverage. He has excellent closing speed and a knack for finding the football. Here, Kendricks is in man-coverage on Lamar Miller, one of the quickest running backs in the league. He recognized the play, caught up to Miller in the flat, and broke up the pass. A lot of linebackers can run down the running back and make the tackle, but Kendricks kept him from catching the pass.
I love #Vikings LB Eric Kendricks. Smart, rangy, physical. Budding star next season. pic.twitter.com/oJD8U4vPCm
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) July 28, 2017
Kendricks’ range extends beyond the line of scrimmage, too. He has the speed to defend down the field if necessary. This clip shows just that. (Yes, it was preseason, but that does not matter.) Watch as he lines up on the outside and runs with the running back. He was step-for-step with the intended receiver and got his hands up to defend the pass. There are cornerbacks who struggle with finding the ball, but Kendricks did a superb job here.
Fantastic pass deflection from Eric Kendricks pic.twitter.com/77U1nr3LLj
— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) August 25, 2018
While the Vikings do not use a third linebacker all too often, they do need depth. Wilson has been a nice depth piece that has contributed on special teams. He has a chance to fight for the third spot once again this season. He isn’t the biggest player for the position, but he tackles well and has the speed to close on the ball. Wilson showed flashes last preseason. On this play, Wilson lines up on the opposite side of the play and runs down the running back before he can get to the line of scrimmage. He flies across the middle of the field and makes a great play on the ball-carrier.
Pressure from Jalyn Holmes and Tashawn Bower cuts the field in half, and Eric Wilson takes advantage by firing towards the RB option and generating a TFL pic.twitter.com/gvrgokTlmi
— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) August 25, 2018
He routinely finds the ball when given the chance. His speed is perfect for beating offensive linemen in space. Watch here as he blows by the line on a screen and stops the running back.
This was an excellent read and textbook tackle by Eric Wilson to force a Lions punt here on 3rd and 13. pic.twitter.com/KdDx7XmDBx
— Purple Post (@Purple_Post) December 24, 2018
Gedeon is the go-to guy on first downs. When offenses are expected to run the ball, Gedeon holds some value as the strong side backer. He lacks the speed and athleticism to play the weak side, but he tackles well. His strength and tenacity are crucial to run defense. You can see his hardnosed tackling on display here.
If you watch real close you can see Ben Gedeon earning himself a starting spot pic.twitter.com/qCWPwvvB1p
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) August 20, 2017
How the Rookie Can Make an Impact
The Vikings do not have much depth at the second level of the defense. A number of bodies will be fighting for a roster spot in training camp. Cameron Smith was selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He is a decent athlete that offers a little flexibility. While he does not stand out at any aspect, he can make plays from time to time.
Smith is a good tackler with great technique. He was a starter at USC, a school known for producing quality linebackers. While he isn’t the quickest, Smith makes up for it with his recognition and tackling.
Watching clips of #Vikings draft pick Cameron Smith from USC I see two things:
1. He sifts well in space & has a nose for the ball & good rip hand when taking RB to the ground.
2. At 6’2” 238lbs it shows the Vikings were considering Blake Cashman if he was there. #KFANVikes pic.twitter.com/KMXzT2wyUB
— Ron Johnson (@3RonJohnson) April 27, 2019
There is a lot of upside with Smith. He will most likely start camp as a special teamer and scout team player. However, if he shows the upside that he flashed in college, he can catch some eyes. As a freshman, Smith intercepted three passes in one game against Utah. Each interception was followed by a nice return. His ball skills and ability to create big plays will certainly give him a chance to succeed in the NFL.
Cameron Smith | #TheOpening CFB Alum POW
3 INT's (1 TD)
9 Tackles@CamSc35 #FightOn ✌️ pic.twitter.com/jfURlZbgML
— The Opening (@TheOpening) October 26, 2015
The Minnesota Vikings linebackers are few in number, but the talent is there. As the team heads into training camp, they should be happy with the state of the defense.
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