EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Since he became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in January, Mike Zimmer has been working to remake the team's defense in his image. He needed a run-stuffing nose tackle; the Vikings signed one in Linval Joseph. Zimmer needed an upgrade at slot cornerback; the Vikings paid Captain Munnerlyn to fill that role.
But as much as the Vikings had done for the first and last layers of Zimmer's defense, they were still missing a key ingredient in the middle of the sandwich: a speedy, disruptive linebacker who could blitz from the strongside position and hunt down running backs. Zimmer wanted one badly enough in his final year in Cincinnati that the Bengals signed former 3-4 linebacker James Harrison at age 35, put him on the strong side of their 4-3 defense and asked him to perform many of the same functions he did in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.
In Minnesota, Zimmer now has a younger and bigger linebacker to do that job. His name is Anthony Barr, and after the Vikings took him with the ninth pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night, Barr became the clearest sign that a major shift is coming to Minnesota's defense.
He is 6-foot-4, 255 pounds -- essentially the same size as defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison -- and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. Barr has spent two years at linebacker, after he asked UCLA coach Jim Mora about switching from running back to linebacker two years ago, and he had 13 1/2 sacks in the Bruins' 3-4 defense last year. Many had projected Barr would fit best with a 3-4 team, but in Minnesota he'll be one of the keys to a defense predicated on active linebackers.
"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker, for instance," Zimmer said. "We're thinking of ways to continually try to pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position. That's why we felt good about him."
Think about how different that sounds from the way the Vikings have operated in the past. In Leslie Frazier's Cover 2 scheme, the responsibility for rushing the passer rested largely with the defensive ends, while linebackers were asked to drop into coverage and take away zones in the middle of the field. It asked linebackers to be reliable defenders, not agents of chaos. In Zimmer's defense, those expectations will change.
That's why the coach pushed for Barr, whom general manager Rick Spielman said was the second-best pass-rusher in the draft behind Jadeveon Clowney, and that's why it shouldn't come as a surprise the Vikings want to feature him. Putting Barr at strongside linebacker also doesn't mean the Vikings are phasing out Chad Greenway; Zimmer pointed out that Greenway's position would actually be weakside linebacker in his defense, and added he envisions both players on the field at the same time. Spielman talked in March about how Zimmer had some different ideas for Greenway, and while the coach didn't elaborate on those ideas Thursday, he said, "Chad can play anywhere."
For the strongside linebacker position in his defense, though, Zimmer needed a specific kind of player. He got his man in Barr, and his remodel of the Vikings' defense took a significant step forward.