Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC North [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Vikings position outlook: Linebackers

By Ben Goessling

MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing on with our position-by-position outlook of the Minnesota Vikings' roster. Today: the linebackers.

LINEBACKERS

2014 free agents: Desmond Bishop, Marvin Mitchell, Larry Dean (restricted).

The good: The Vikings might have found something at the end of the year at middle linebacker. Second-year man Audie Cole stepped in for Erin Henderson in late November and played well at the position until a high ankle sprain kept him out of the last game of the season. The Vikings hadn't planned to build around Henderson at middle linebacker, as former coach Leslie Frazier acknowledged during the season, and Cole mostly held up well as a blitzer and in pass coverage.

The bad: There wasn't much else to like at the position in 2013. Henderson had his moments, particularly when he was used to blitz, but often looked like he was guessing in pass coverage. He was also arrested on his second DWI charge in as many months in early January. His future with the team would appear to be tenuous at best. Chad Greenway played with a broken wrist for much of the season that impaired his ability to tackle and also seemed a step late in pass coverage too often. He might have been caught trying to compensate for the instability at the linebacker positions around him. Desmond Bishop had taken the weak-side linebacker position from Marvin Mitchell when he sustained his second season-ending injury in as many years, Mitchell made few impact plays, rookie Michael Mauti excelled mostly on special teams and fellow rookie Gerald Hodges struggled to gain the favor of the coaching staff.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Greenway ($8.2 million), Henderson ($2.25 million), Hodges ($600,027), Cole ($570,000), Mauti ($480,000). Given the fact he turned 31 earlier this month and he is coming off a subpar season, Greenway could be a candidate to restructure his deal if the Vikings wind up in a cap crunch, though there's a good chance they'll have enough flexibility to avoid that. Cutting Henderson would only cost the Vikings $500,000, and in light of the fact he might have an NFL suspension coming, it seems possible the Vikings would part ways with him. The rest of the group is on rookie deals, and the Vikings can decide whether to let go of Mitchell and Dean.

Draft priority: High. The Vikings need an impact player at the position, no matter whether they think they have a solution at middle linebacker in Cole. Buffalo's Khalil Mack has been linked to the Vikings in a handful of early mock drafts, and he could make sense at No. 8. But with Greenway possibly entering the twilight of his Pro Bowl career, and new coach Mike Zimmer instilling a new defensive scheme, it's important for the Vikings to get some things settled at linebacker.