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The future of the Vikings, part 7: The linebackers

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part 7, linebackers…

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Wide receivers 

Tight ends

Offensive line

Defensive line

Anthony Barr

What worked:

In the final season of his contract, the Vikings’ ninth overall pick in 2014 had the second highest graded season of his career by Pro Football Focus, only behind 2015. He was effective in multiple areas, grading positively as a run defender and pass rusher. PFF graded him the 16th best linebacker (of 57) against the run, seventh best in the pass rush and 13th in tackling. Overall he was graded 23rd.

Only four linebackers created more pressures (23) than Barr and despite an ugly game in Los Angeles in Week 4, there were 52 linebackers who were targeted more in coverage in 2018 than the Vikings’ linebacker. In fact, following that miserable night in L.A., Barr only allowed 73 yards in coverage for the remainder of the season.

What didn’t work:

On several occasions Barr talked about wanting to rush the passer more often than in the past. His rush percentage did increase in 2018, but not by much. Barr chased opposing QBs on 103 of 477 pass plays (21.6 percent). Over the last two seasons, he rushed on 18.2 percent of pass plays. Three percent probably isn’t enough to convince Barr, who is a free agent, that things will be any different going forward if he says in Minnesota.

Mike Zimmer has expressed that he wants to keep Barr long term, but the price tag might simply be too high if he’s looking for pass rusher money.

While Barr’s overall grades and stats were solid — and it should be noted that his position is one of the most difficult to place value with grades — his performance in Week 17 was the second worst of the season by PFF measures (Los Angeles was the worst). That was a game where the Vikings needed the dominant version of Barr.

Best case scenario 2019:

The Vikings re-sign Barr at a reasonable dollar and he carries over his 2018 play into his prime years. Or they let him walk and either find a quality replacement in free agency or the draft, saving the team significant cap space.

Worst case scenario 2019: 

Barr walks and the Vikings’ attempts to fill his shoes come up short and they see a significant drop in play from the position.

Eric Kendricks

What worked:

By the numbers, Kendricks has been very durable. He’s only missed five games since entering the league (two in 2018) and has been graded by PFF somewhere in the middle of the pack among NFL linebackers each year. He was 34th of 57 in 2018, 29th of 58 in 2017 and 23rd of 57 in 2016. Kendricks ranked 20th in tackling and registered the fewest missed tackles (seven) of his career. He’s finished with between 108 and 113 tackles in each of the last three years. There’s a lot to be said in the NFL for consistency.

What didn’t work: 

The former UCLA standout allowed the second highest yards per catch (12.9) among all linebackers and gave up a 104.7 rating. Both of those numbers were much higher than in 2017 (7.7 yards per catch, 83.1 rating). Overall he graded 29th in coverage grade (lowest ranking since his rookie year). The 2018 season was also his least effective as a pass rusher, picking up just nine pressures. His previous low was 13.

Best case scenario 2019:

In most ways, Kendricks continues to play the same way the Vikings have come to expect. Scheme improvements might help his coverage numbers bounce back.

Worst case scenario 2019: 

There is a high floor for Kendricks. Worst case scenario, aside from injury, is a repeat of his 2018 season. That’s still pretty solid.

Ben Gedeon

The Vikings knew what they were signing up for when they drafted the Michigan product in 2017: A hard-nosed run stuffer with some limitations. In 311 snaps, Gedeon graded as the defense’s second best tackler with at least 300 snaps (Harrison Smith ranked No. 1). Over his two years with the Vikings, Gedeon has allowed 17 for 23 passing for 220 yards into his coverage. At 24, there may be some for growth, but he is likely to continue solid play in his base defense role.

Eric Wilson 

With injuries to Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, Wilson got his first significant playing time since signing as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2017 season. He graded similarly to Barr as a run defender and created six pressures in 31 pass rush opportunities. In coverage, opposing teams targeted him 26 times with 20 completions, but only averaged 6.7 yards per completion.

The Vikings may have found something with Wilson as a rotational player. It would be a stretch to ask him to take all of Barr’s jobs on the defense, but he proved in 2018 he can be effective in a fill-in role.

Kentrell Brothers 

The Vikings showed how much they like Brothers as a special teamer by keeping him on the squad despite a four-game suspension. PFF has continually graded him as one of the best special teams players in the NFL.

Options

The Vikings could re-sign Barr to a long-term contract or franchise tag him with the price coming in the range of $15 million per year. If they do not keep Barr, here are several ways they could go:

— Use the cap space left by Barr to sign one of the top free agent LBs, Baltimore’s CJ Mosley, Seattle’s KJ Wright or Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander

— Sign a role-playing linebacker like Detroit’s Eli Harold or Pittsburgh’s L.J. Fort and create a group by committee that could include safety Jayron Kearse in some packages.

— As much as it might drive some Vikings fans up the wall, they could look to a few of the top linebackers in the first round. Michigan’s Devin Bush, for example, is rated as the 24th best player in the draft by CBS Sports.





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