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The future of the Vikings, Part 6: The linebackers

Nov 13, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis (85) scores a touchdown after breaking a tackle by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr (55) during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“The Future of the Vikings” is a series of articles looking at everything from strengths and weaknesses to draft and free agent options to schemes and trends heading into 2017 and beyond. Read Part 1 on quarterbacks herePart 2 on the running backsPart 3, the wide receiversPart 4, the offensive line, Part 5, the defensive line, and for Part 6, the linebackers…

A down year for Anthony Barr

For the majority of the season, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer avoided giving a direct answer about the struggles of linebacker Anthony Barr. He said that the former ninth-overall pick was playing well, he just wasn’t making, “splash” plays as he had in 2015.

But none of the statistical categories for “splash” plays showed much difference. Barr finished the year with 1.5 fewer sacks, two fewer forced fumbles and one fewer interception than the previous season. He averaged the same number of QB Hurries per game (0.5) in 2016 as last season and only 4.3% of Barr’s tackles were for losses, down from 5.9%

So why did his Pro Football Focus rating see such a massive drop?

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Before the Vikings’ Week 16 matchup against Green Bay, Zimmer finally acknowledged the 24-year-old’s down trend and said Barr had a “tendency to coast.”

Even using game film, it’s pretty tough to nail down exactly when Barr wasn’t going all-out. It is, however, evident that teams began taking advantage of Barr’s struggles in coverage and in the run game.

Here is one example in which he is in man-to-man coverage with Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron.

It’s hard to say exactly why Barr had his entire weight shifted to his left when Ebron broke to his right – whether he was supposed to be in zone coverage but read the play or guessed wrong or just had bad footwork – but these types of plays were a regular occurrence. Only five of 83 qualifying linebackers received lower PFF grades in coverage than Barr.

Against the run, he ranked 70th.  Barr was easily eliminated from the play by his blocker at an alarming rate. Here is an example against the Philadelphia Eagles:

When Barr did get his hands on skill players, the opponents often shed his tackle. According to Football Outsiders, 22.2% of Barr’s attempted tackles were broken, the 10th most among all players with more than 35 tackles – including cornerbacks and safeties. Last season, only 14.9% of Barr’s tackles were broken, about league average for linebackers.

Players often have fluctuations in things like their PFF score and broken tackle rate just based on circumstances, opponents, luck etc. But the massive drop off in Barr’s results should be a major concern for Zimmer and the Vikings’ brass.

Barr is heading into his fourth season in the NFL, which is significant because the Vikings can decide to exercise his fifth-year option after 2017, sign him to a long-term deal or let him become a free agent (a la Cordarrelle Patterson). Before this year, you would have bet your house that Barr would be getting a monster long-term deal, but now the Vikings have to be in wait-and-see mode.

That throws a wrench into their long-term plans at linebacker. The Vikings would have figured they were set for a long time at the key two linebacker positions.

The biggest question facing Zimmer and the front office is whether they believe Barr’s problems can be fixed. Was there a hidden injury that Barr didn’t disclose? Or did opponents catch onto his weaknesses and exploit them? Was he exposed because opposite teams tried to avoid throwing against the top-notch cornerbacks?

When Barr came out in the draft, some expected him to play an edge rusher’s role, but until 2016 it appeared the Vikings were right to play him at linebacker. Would they consider a rotation with Barr replacing Brian Robison’s role on the defensive line mixing in with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter? If that is the case, it’s major value lost from what they expected, but Barr’s only decent grade from PFF was in the pass rush (5th among LBs).

Would the Vikings consider trading him in the offseason and replacing him in free agency? If they do not believe there is a high chance of his problems being solved, that could be the best option, though other teams would already know that his play went South.

Eric Kendricks is very modern

The Vikings’ second-year linebacker took positive steps in 2016, emerging as one of the better cover linebackers in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked him 20th in coverage. One bad game against the Indianapolis Colts in which receivers/TEs caught all eight passes thrown his direction probably cost him an even higher rating.

At 6-foot, 232-pounds, he is on the smaller side for linebackers, but he also ran a 4.61 40-yard dash and it shows when he is asked to track down running backs out of the backfield or cover receivers and tight ends in man or zone coverage. On this play, he lines up showing blitz, which causes Brock Osweiler to target running back Lamar Miller out of the backfield. Kendricks doesn’t rush the QB, instead he flies out into the flat to break up the pass.

Kendricks finished the year with nine pass deflections, which was eight more than in 2015. He also took a huge leap forward in his PFF grade, jumping from a mediocre 48.4 to 80.3, the 26th best in the NFL.

Linebackers like Kendricks were less effective in the days of Emmitt Smith, when teams routinely had 300-carry running backs and worked to establish the run. The increase in running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield along with more three, four and five wide receiver sets means that an undersized, speedy linebacker can play almost every down instead of just in “passing situations.” Only Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Everson Griffen saw the field more than Kendricks this year.

The Vikings are in great shape with Kendricks from every aspect, including contract. Still on his rookie deal, the former second-round pick will have a cap hit of $1.4 million next year and $1.6 in 2018.

Replacing Chad Greenway

Chad Greenway had a very good career as a Viking, but he was probably on the field too often during his (presumable) final NFL season. Greenway was on the field for 399 snaps, 138 of which were in coverage. He was 74th of 83 in coverage. by PFF rankings There was no better example than against the Indianapolis in Week 15. The Colts used three-tight end sets to bait the Vikings into playing Greenway in the base package instead of Captain Munnerlyn in the nickel, then beat the veteran linebacker on throws the speedy tight end Erik Swoope (bottom of the screen).

Greenway is the opposite of the spectrum from Kendricks. If this were 15 years ago, he might be helpful to a team for another few years. The veteran linebacker’s rating against the run was still fairly solid, but that skill just doesn’t help a defense like it used to.

So now the Vikings will be on the market for a replacement.

Backups Audie Cole and Emmanuel Lamur struggled in limited duty. Cole is a free agent and may be brought back for special teams purposes, but not to take a regular role on defense.

What should Greenway’s replacement look like? Assuming Barr and Kendricks are the two linebackers in nickel situations, should the Vikings look for another run stuffer? Or should they target a quicker linebacker who can fill in should Kendricks or Barr get hurt?

Free agents Sean Spence of the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta’s Paul Worrilow are both in the 230-pound range like Kendricks and have solid coverage rankings in part-time roles. Those players might be more valuable than a free agent like Falcons’ run-stuffer Larry Reynolds, who is a solid base package linebacker but one dimensional.

The other option is to use 2016 fifth-round pick Kentrell Brothers as the run-stopping linebacker. At Missouri, he racked up 152 tackles and 12 for loss during his final season. His draft profile reads like the next coming of Greenway:

“Elite vision and understanding of spatial relationship. Finds the ball quickly and rarely lets it leave his sights. Has innate sense of when to go over or under blocks and finds creases to tackle that many linebackers can’t see. Reads keys and allows them to lead him to victory. Calm and focused around line of scrimmage and is very rarely taken off his feet by a block. Plays with pre­-snap idea of where ball is headed and races to the spot ahead of linemen looking to climb up and block him.”

Brothers made a good first impression by earning his keep on special teams and and was rated one of the best in the league by PFF.

The draft is another option if the Vikings wanted to use a late pick on a role player but only two inside linebackers picked after the third round made 25 or more tackles in 2016.

The takeaway

Coming into 2016, the Vikings felt like they were on very solid ground with the linebacker position. They left 2016 feeling shaky about a Barr, who they expected to be elite for a long time. The silver lining is that Kendricks, who was up and down during his rookie year, proved he can be an exceptional player.

We know that offensive line is the Vikings’ No. 1 priority. Very close to the top of that list might be figuring out their plan for 2016 with Barr.

  • Gordon Guffey

    A down year for Anthony Barr
    Hopefully Barr gets back on track in 2017 be it because of injury or what ever it might have been ~ It sure seem to me ((( and maybe its just me ))) like Zimmer blitzed a lot less and that could have effected Bars play by forcing him to stick with TE’s and RB longer in coverage and his read and react as to was it a run or pass because of the lack of pressure by just a man rush ~ And while the Vikings were very good at getting after the QB with just the front its not something that can be done on ever single play ~ Plus the play at UT was really bad and team ran much better against the defense as a whole ~

    Even Harrison Smith had his own problems with missed tackles by his own standards ~ As did others ~

    Eric Kendricks is very modern

    Kendricks is another player who had his own trouble with missed tackles early on while filling the wrong wholes and not getting off of blocks ~ But I was very happy to see him correct the issues ~ Maybe some of that was rust from missing time in TC and preseason ~

    Replacing Chad Greenway
    I tip my hat to Mr Greenway ~ Thank you Sir for giving everything you had ~
    I dont know of anyone on the roster outside of Cole who might be able to step in and play well and he is more of a ST player in my book ~ IMHO Brothers is ever bit the question mark as Cole is ~

    However I will trust Spielman and his scouts along with Zimmer and his defensive staff to find some players be it in FA or the draft ~

    The fact that George Edwards is going to coach in East-West Shrine Game will be a plus in this area ~ I have no doubt there is more than one LBer ((( As well as other players ~ Say a OL or two ))) in that game that can help the Vikings out be it depth or as a replacement for Greenway ~

    And while Edwards will coach the West team he will get a very good look at the talent on the East team as well ~ His input come daft day could be very very important ~

    • Mike Kano

      I think Brothers has the highest likelihood of the LBers currently on the team to fill the third LBer role. The big concern about him is his lack of speed, although he is also a rather smallish LBer by current standards. Of course, he would slide into the middle, moving Kendricks to the weak side.

      Offensive coordinators adapted this year by going to a quick passing game, negating the pass rush. Sending a blitz which does not have time to get home just exposes the defense. The ripple effect is that the coverage defenders were subject to being exposed. That happened to both Barr and Greenway.

    • Matt Coller

      Statistically, Zimmer’s blitz rate was about the same in the past, so I’m not sure that was the issue. And generally, Barr was pretty much the same in making a pass rush impact, it was the other parts that were a problem. Looking at how Cole played against Washington, I don’t think he’s the one to get the gig. Appreciate the comment!

      • Gordon Guffey

        Just thinking out loud Matt ~ LOL ~ Smiley Face 🙂

        • Jordan Musser

          Gordon what I think you are getting at is that Zimmer and the defense didn’t show the double A gap look as much this season when compared to last year.

          It certainly appeared that way to me and the defense kind of mocked the offense with the lack of creativity. Everything we did well last season was kind of forgotten this season. I get it… the loss of Teddy a week before the season had a huge impact on the entire team from a mindset point of view.

          Yes, we started 5-0 but we could have easily been 3-2 or 2-3 after those 5 games instead. I kept mentioning to everyone i knew, i wasn’t convinced at that time, something was still missing and i couldn’t put my finger on it. But what I think it was had to do with Teddy. The mindset of all the players from that point seemed to change. The team went from an attacking force on both offense and defense to just a go through the motions type of team. Did Teddy’s gruesome injury open the players eyes as to how bad the game can be? Was it too much focus on the offense once Teddy went down to try and get Bradford up to speed and “jellying” with his teammates and lack of focus on defense? Hard to say that because the defense was still good statistically but they lacked that tenacity they showed last year.

          I do agree with Madderton though in that Barr might be a great fit for a 3-4 defense where he can rush 80-90% of the time as the outside back in that scheme. If we revert back to the article where we discussed giving up Griffin for Joe Thomas that could be a possibility. However we know Zimmer prefers to have a 4-3 defense and to change that we would have to really be desperate and I don’t think that will happen.

          Lastly, I think we are good at LB but it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes open and if 1 or 2 players fall into your lap you grab em.

          • Gordon Guffey

            Great reply Jordan Musser ~

            ((( Zimmer and the defense didn’t show the double A gap look as much this season ))) ~

            Thank you Mr John Musser ~ You were reading my mind ~ I just couldn’t find the words ~ That happens a lot as I get older ~ LOL

            ((( I do agree with Madderton though in that Barr might be a great fit for a 3-4 defense where he can rush 80-90% of the time as the outside back in that scheme. )))

            I too hit like on Madderton post ~ And agree ~ My hope is that Zimmer can get back to find a way to make Barr a standout once again in his defense ~

            ((( The team went from an attacking force on both offense and defense to just a go through the motions type of team. )))

            I agree with you on this as well ~ Zimmer who I believe coaching was effected by his eye issue along with his in house fighting with Norv and where he and his son Scott were taking the offense just took a lot of the steam out of the team ~ It has only been after the season that we have been hearing about the part where Scott was taking on as a play called and his involvement in the game plan ~ And that it was he with his dad’s backing who pushed for the drafting of Teddy ~ Not that I have a problem with them drafting Teddy who if he somehow makes it back and takes over if the Vikings decide to let Bradford walk after 2017 will fit better in Shurmur offense than he ever did in Norv’s ~ I believe Zimmer will regain his focus in 2017 and we will be back to the attacking on both sides of the ball ~

            ((( Yes, we started 5-0 but we could have easily been 3-2 or 2-3 after those 5 games instead. )))

            I totally agree on this ~ It was mostly big plays on defense in those 5 games that got the wins and could have easily been different if the ball had bounced the other way in a couple of games ~

            ((( If we revert back to the article where we discussed giving up Griffin for Joe Thomas that could be a possibility. )))

            We differ here on this trade ~ While I would love to have Joe Thomas if he still capable of playing like he has in the past he is far too old to give up someone as young and talented as Barr for the few years Joe Thomas would have left for my liking ~ Plus it would leave the Vikings with one surefire starter at LB heading into 2017 ~ And while Spielman and Zimmer could go out and sign a FA or draft someone you never kown how they will fit in ~ It took both Joseph and Munnerlyn a year to fit into Zimmer type of deffense ~ Then the Vikings would be left with one good starter if whoever were to take a year once again ~ But my biggest thing is the age difference ~ Now if they were able to find someone in the same age rang as Barr who was capable of playing well to great I wouldn’t have a problem with a deal if it was something Zimmer felt he could deal with in FA because the draft can be such a crap shoot ~

            I believe our only difference was the Joe Thomas for Barr trade ~ Thanks for the reply ~ Its always great to chat with other Viking fans ~ I’m ready for the offseason to start ~ Cause you know Spielman will do everything he can because its not just the draft that reflex’s on him ((( And as it stand right now last years wasn’t his best ~ But that could chance ))) but his first shot at hiring a coaching staff as well ~ And Norv did everything he could to stick a knife into that as well as Zimmer back ~ But thats JMHO ~

          • Jordan Musser

            Hi Gordon, yeah i saw the same non aggressive team as you. I think you misunderstood me when I mentioned trading for Joe Thomas. I am not referring to trading Barr for Thomas I was referring to Everson Griffen who is currently 29 years old for Joe Thomas who is currently 30 years old.

            Either Barr or Hunter could move to Griffens side while the other moves in Hunters spot and then we add an all pro LT to our club.

  • Talltales08

    Do they keep stats on the number of times a player gets run over? Barr has to be near the top of that list for the Vikings

    • Matt Coller

      That would be factored into the Pro Football Focus rankings, I’d imagine…

  • fred

    Kendricks looked great in the first five games and trailed off. He was getting beat more often after those first five games.

    • Matt Coller

      Definitely had trouble in a few, but made a huge play in the Lions game to keep the Vikings alive. Thought he had a good year overall.

  • Vito Mazzariello

    Every year we need people at every position…When will it end? The Vikings have to move out of that cursed State a- la the Lakers and North Stars….Nuf said..

    • Matt Coller

      Boy, if a curse of the North Stars extends to football, the Vikings are in trouble.

    • You do raise an interesting point indeed.

      We have linebackers covered. No we don’t. We’ve got our QB of the future. we don’t. Our pass rush is looking great. Ooops….no it isn’t….. special teams are rocking….. nope, guess not.

      We always seem to need 8-10 quality players. Just can’t rack that many up in one season.

    • Da

      Lakers won here moron

  • David Prestin

    Need 1 more starter at lb. If it’s Brothers, so be it. It seemed early in the season we showed 8 man fronts a lot. 2nd half we looked like we played more base defense. No idea why. Perhaps to give defense rest as offense wasn’t on field much.

    • Mike Kano

      Over the course of the year, offensive coordinators adapted by going to a quick passing game, negating the pass rush. Sending a blitz which does not have time to get home just exposes the defense. The Vikings countered by pulling some of their defenders off of the line of scrimmage.

      • David Prestin

        I understand that but we could have at least showed the 8 in the box then dropped back into converge. Seemed to confuse teams.

  • Lester Stkl

    vikes suck because of awful GM and poor player evaluation. The Vikes need to start from bottom up and hire better scouts. The guys they have now are clueless hence the average draft results. I’d also fire the entire coaching staff except Zimmer and dump C Johnson, Wright, Mat K, Long, Greenway, Robison, Newman, and a few others. I’d beg AP to come back at a much more reasonable salary, and keep Patterson. I’d bring in one guard and 2 tackles via free agency and use the second round pick for an OL. I’d then use 3rd and 4th round picks for LBs and Rbs, If the Vikes do not get the urgency this year Zimmer should be booted.

    • Mike Kano

      Your football knowledge is inadequate, likely due to being a Packers fan. Condolences.

    • Matt Coller

      I agree with two tackles and a guard…but not sure I can get on board with bringing Peterson back

    • pzebich

      Good thing you’re not in charge.

  • Odin1984

    Ben Boulware (clemson ) is a little bit undersized and maybe too slow but he is a great leader , has great football IQ and toughness
    could be a late pick on day 3 for the special teams and become a sarter on the road

    • Matt Coller

      Not against it. Brothers is very similar to that description, except for the undersized part.

  • linus

    Coller repeatedly dismisses the importance of the running game (both offensively and defensively), but the fact is, the Vikings’ pass defense can really only be blamed for one loss this year (the second Packers’ game, obviously), while their struggles against the run contributed mightily to 5 of their losses (Bears, Redskins, Cardinals, Cowboys, and Colts).

    • Matt Coller

      I don’t completely dismiss it, but look at who’s left in the NFL…it’s all the best QBs. Running game is a cherry on top. First – they didn’t lose to Arizona. Second, the Colts crushed them in the passing game. They mostly held Dallas in check. Washington and Chicago, yes. Though a huge touchdown pass by Kirk Cousins probably helped a lot, as did a last-minute INT by Bradford. It’s helpful to stop the run and the Vikings were about an average team at doing it this year and still had a great defense.

      • linus

        You’re right about the Cards, and of course the one common denominator in all of the Vikings losses was lousy play on the offensive side of the ball. That said, the Colts game wasn’t just bad pass defense, they also gave up 2 TDs and 160 yards rushing, and they surrendered 5.0 yards per carry to the Cowboys (which doesn’t qualify as holding them in check). The point is: while the Vikings were “about average” against the run (16th in yards allowed per carry), they were outstanding against the pass (2nd in yards allowed per pass play). So clearly, if you’re looking for a way the defense may have hurt their chances of winning this season, it was against the run, not the pass.

  • Talked about this with another commenter the other day. Is this a rampant problem?

    The mighty Boa pointed out last off season that THE NUMBER ONE ISSUE absolutely HAD TO BE THE OFFENSIVE LINE. We bowed out on Osemele. “Too much”….yet they gave just as much to Khalil. Difference? Osemele is now anchoring one of the most improved lines in the NFL. Said we needed to draft Conklin. “Oh, no” said some of the supposed “homer” supposedly expert analysts. The ones who think they are of course. When he wasn’t busy bulldozing defensive linemen, he was preparing for the pro bowl.

    There are numerous people, one in particular, that actually argued with the mighty Boa, telling him the line was IN GREAT SHAPE and “very deep”……. so much so, he predicted 15-1. Of course, this is one of the typical jokers who thinks he knows everything, makes numerous predictions, then denies having made them when they all blow up. The problem is, we seem to have an excess number of these. Makes one wonder if some of them aren’t actually on the payroll. Let’s pray to God not.

    • Misty Trollop

      When you mentioned “typical joker”, I thought for sure that you were referring to yourself. You seem like the typical joker type with a barrel of narcissism and a pound or two of delusions of grandeur mixed in with you.

  • GordonGekko

    Bring back Fred McNeil and Matt Blair.

  • Madderton

    Still think that Barr is a 3-4 LB in a 4-3 system.

  • CT Ronn

    We’re pretty deep at LB, even with the likely retirement of Greenway. Maybe we should be proactive and consider trading Barr, who would likely bring a #1 and an additional pick. Or maybe work a deal for a quality O-lineman. You have to give up something of value to receive somethig of value. Barr is good… sometimes very good, but he can also go an entire game and you wonder if he’s even on the field. He’s perfect trade bait.

  • Tyler Johnson

    Is is possible Anthony has just physically outgrown the things they are asking him to do in coverage? You see these guys come in from college lighter and quicker. Over time they add mass as they continue to age and that agility starts to go as they get older. I think that effect is compounded for a guy whos 6’4″ and 260ish lbs. Best role for him is probably the rush LB in a 3-4 but he could be effective in the “Leo” type role you see in the Pete Carroll defenses. In any case I think Zimmer needs to be more creative in how he deploys Barr going forward – there is room in any defense for a good pash rusher and thats what Barr needs to primarily be doing. Needs to be a chess piece that primarily gets moved around and attacks instead of trying to chase RB’s and TE’s around in coverage. In my opinion, the fact that a man his size can move as well as he does in coverage needs to be seen as an added wrinkle to his game, not his primary duty.


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