The Top-5 linebackers the Vikings should pursue in free agency
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Welcome to 'Countdown to Free Agency,' a four-day installment before NFL teams can begin negotiating with other teams' unrestricted free agents on Saturday, March 8. Each installment will look at a key position of need for the Minnesota Vikings and the top prospects that will likely be available when free agency opens on March 11.
Players under contract in 2014: Chad Greenway, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Simoni Lawrence. Greenway, 31, led the Vikings in tackles for the sixth straight season as he played through a fractured wrist in November and December. He could be a candidate for restructure as he commands a $8.2 million cap in 2014, but the Vikings may not need the room as they reportedly hold more than $35 million in cap space heading into free agency. Audie Cole will enter his third year after starting five games in place of Erin Henderson last season. With Mauti, the Vikings have a pair of inside linebackers with potential. The Vikings signed Lawrence (6'1", 228lbs) this offseason and will give the former Gopher a shot at making the team, but outside of Greenway, they lack a proven starter.
Pending free agents: Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop, Larry Dean (RFA), Erin Henderson (cut, already a FA). Mitchell, 29, appeared in all 16 games for the Vikings last season, either as an outside linebacker or specialist. He could be a candidate for a similar one-year deal he played on last season, depending on first-year head coach Mike Zimmer's preference in a relatively weak linebacker free agent market. Bishop, 29, had his second season-ending injury in as many seasons without getting a chance to prove much on his one-year deal, however he briefly looked to be one of the more disruptive backers of the Vikings' bunch last season.
Most of the available free agent linebackers line up on the inside. The Vikings need a starter on the outside to pair with Greenway, which could come from a high draft pick out of May's NFL Draft.
Off the market: Brian Orakpo (tagged), Jason Worilds (tagged), Donald Butler (resigned)
Top 5 on the market:
1. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
Why: Let's be clear, the available linebackers are only worth a one-year deal at the right price, especially for a Vikings team with young talent at the position on the roster. Most of the free agents are older than 30, which gives general managers pause. Smith, 32 this month, led the Ravens' 12th-ranked defense in tackles last season on a one-year deal. If Baltimore isn't willing to bring him back, he could provide the type of veteran, instant production the Vikings need. Smith struggled against the run, but he deflected eight passes, grabbed three picks and had one of the best coverage grades of any inside linebacker, per ProFootballFocus.com.
2. Brandon Spikes, New England
Why: Spikes, 26, is the most impactful linebacker on the market that's on the right side of 30. Spikes played fewer than 700 snaps last season as he battled a lingering knee injury and ultimately ended up on injured reserve before the Patriots' AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos in January. Spikes (6'2", 255lbs) is a bruiser in the run game, but often a liability in pass coverage - a pairing Vikings' fans were all too familiar with in the NFL's worst pass defense last season. Spikes' upside comes with his youth and the likelihood the Patriots are going to let him walk.
3. Karlos Dansby, Arizona
Why: Dansby, 32, finished as PFF's fifth-best inside linebacker in 2013 on a one-year deal with the Cardinals. Dansby wants to return to Arizona, but also wants to get paid like one of the best linebackers in football. Dansby's numbers from last season (114 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and a forced fumble) show that he can be just that - but he'll turn 33 midway through next season and it's unlikely the Vikings will pay Dansby what he's looking for.
4. Wesley Woodyard, Denver
Why: Woodyard, 28 in July, likely won't return to Denver and could be worth a look as he played both on the inside and at weak-side linebacker in six seasons with the Broncos. Woodyard had a standout 2012 season, finishing with more than 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions, but failed to register that kind of production from the middle last season. His versatility among each linebacker position, as well as his age, makes him a viable option for the Vikings.
5. Mike Neal, Green Bay
Why: Neal, 26, transitioned to outside linebacker after being drafted as a defensive lineman in Green Bay. His versatility and age is also his best upside for a defensive scheme that's still a question mark for first-year coach Mike Zimmer. Neal (6'3", 285lbs) started 10 games for the Packers and grabbed an interception and forced a fumble last season. For the Vikings, he could provide needed depth either on the outside or along the defensive line.
Worth a workout:
Lofa Tatupu, formerly Seattle
Why: Tatupu, 31, was a three-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker for the Seahawks before he underwent double knee surgery in 2011, followed by a torn pectoral muscle the next summer in camp. Tatupu worked out for the Denver Broncos this week after failing to get any interest last season. If Tatupu doesn't land anywhere, he could be an option to help bring along the Vikings' young talent in the middle as a veteran with a Pro Bowl pedigree. Having been away from the NFL field for three seasons, he's a very risky option to sign outside of the absolute minimum.
The short list of outside linebackers/edge rushers that could be a solid fit for the Vikings:
Calvin Pace, New York Jets
Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos
O'Brien Schofield, Seattle Seahawks