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Vikings position reset: Linebacker

5/14/2015

The most significant part of the Minnesota Vikings' offseason program begins May 26, when the team will hold 10 organized team activities and a three-day mandatory minicamp in a four-week stretch. Before that begins, we're taking a position-by-position look at the Vikings' roster, and some key battles to watch:

Position: Linebacker

Who's new: The Vikings signed former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews in free agency, and might have found a starting middle linebacker in second-round pick Eric Kendricks. They spent their final pick in the draft on a developmental player -- Newberry's Edmond Robinson.

Depth chart:

Strongside linebacker

1. Anthony Barr: He had an impressive rookie year truncated by a knee injury, but Barr again figures to be one of the pieces that gives Mike Zimmer's defense its edge. The Vikings stopped rushing Barr from a defensive end position by the middle of last season, but they'll likely move him around their defense enough to keep offensive coordinators uneasy, and especially as Barr develops in pass coverage, he's got a chance to be a major force.

2. Michael Mauti: The third-year linebacker might be able to play a number of different positions, but it's important for him to show this year that he can handle more than special teams. He had a cleanup in one of his knees at the end of the season -- unrelated to his previous ACL surgeries -- but even when he's been healthy, Mauti hasn't been able to make much of an impression. He's got the instincts and aggressiveness to be a solid linebacker, even if he doesn't have top-end speed. Mauti needs to make some plays this spring to put himself in the mix for a roster spot in training camp.

3. Robinson: He's definitely a project, but his length and quickness made him worth a look in the seventh round. He'll need to add more strength and figure out how to handle blockers in the NFL.

Middle linebacker

1. Kendricks: Of all the Vikings' rookies, he might have the best chance to start. Zimmer said Kendricks might eventually wind up as a weakside linebacker. But the Vikings aren't concerned the 232-pound Kendricks is too small to play in the middle; considering the 238-pound Dat Nguyen and 245-pound Dhani Jones started for Zimmer in Dallas and Cincinnati, respectively. Kendricks' smarts and his coverage skills make him a likely starter and possible companion for Barr -- his college roommate -- in the nickel package.

2. Matthews: He comes to Minnesota after playing inside linebacker in Philadelphia, and if Kendricks isn't ready to start, Matthews could be the next option here. Matthews has never fared particularly well in pass coverage, but if he wound up starting, the Vikings wouldn't have to use him in nickel situations.

Weakside linebacker:

1. Chad Greenway: Zimmer said in a radio interview at the NFL scouting combine that Greenway is still the best weakside linebacker the Vikings have, and while he might be entering his last year with the team, it says plenty that the Vikings wanted to keep him around at age 32 (albeit at a reduced salary). He struggled with injuries last year, and might have lost a step in pass coverage, but his instincts, work habits and willingness to take on contact still make him a useful piece of the defense.

2. Gerald Hodges: He played well in relief of Greenway last year, returning an interception for a touchdown against the Jets, but it's interesting to hear Zimmer say Kendricks might be a weakside linebacker in the future. That would indicate the Vikings aren't yet sold on Hodges as the future at that position, and whether he's trying to unseat Greenway in 2015 or secure his future, Hodges will need to build on what he did last year.

3. Audie Cole: Every time he's gotten a chance to play, Cole has done something to attract attention. He had 11 tackles, and assisted on three more, at weakside linebacker against Chicago last year.

Position battles to watch: The weak side is the most interesting spot here, especially if Hodges continues on an upward trajectory. The guess here is Greenway still is the starter heading into (and coming out of) training camp, but Hodges could push him. The Vikings are also optimistic about how quickly Kendricks will pick up their system, and especially if he winds up in the nickel defense, he'll have a lot of responsibility as a rookie. OTAs and minicamp will begin to show how he can handle it.