Throughout the coming weeks, we will look at the future of each position, what changes may come in free agency, the draft or trades and which direction players are trending.
Here are parts 1-6:
Now onto the part 7, the linebackers..
Mike Zimmer relies on his linebackers as much as any head coach in the NFL. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr both played over 90 percent of total snaps this season and rookie Ben Gedeon was in on 25 percent. The LBs played a significant role in the Vikings No. 1 ranking in yards and points, especially contributing with their ability to slow down opposing running backs and tight ends. Minnesota ranked No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed per game to TEs and No. 1 to RBs. They also kept teams contained in the running game. Opponents averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
The Vikings have a strong group set through next year, but there are still decisions to be made….
The Vikings’ former first-round pick had a tremendous start to the season, grading positively by Pro Football Focus in his first nine games. The most noticable part of Barr’s game that was improved from 2016 to 2017 was his tackling. This season opponents broke only 8.2 percent of Barr’s tackles, which was way down from 22.2 percent last year. That number speaks to the possibility he was battling injury in ’16. Barr didn’t have many “splash” plays. He did not have an interception and picked up only one sack, but he did stuff eight runs for negative-22 yards.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Barr’s play faded in the second half. Over the final nine games (including playoffs), Barr registered five negatively graded games by PFF. Overall he finished 44th in the NFL by PFF measures and 38th in coverage – a vast improvement from last season but not to the level of 2014 and 2015.
After a slow start to the season, Kendricks returned to being one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL. His lateral quickness made life difficult on opposing running backs on checkdowns and screen passes. Kendricks finished 19th of 77 linebackers in coverage and 37th overall. He dropped down from 4.0 sacks in his rookie year to just 1.0 sack, but he created more pressures this year than in 2015. Kendricks set a career high in stuffed runs and total tackles.
The Vikings drafted Gedeon in the fourth round from Michigan in the 2017 draft with an eye on having the hard-nosed linebacker win a job as a run-stuffing rotational player. Things worked out according to plan as he picked up 37 tackles and ranked in the top 25 by PFF against the run. Gedeon will still have to improve his ability in coverage in order to take on a bigger role.
When the Vikings signed Lamur from Cincinnati it appeared he would have bigger role than he’s carved out, but he filled in admirably for a handful of snaps and played around 40 percent of special teams snaps.
The Vikings drafted Brothers in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. He has become one of the team’s most valuable special teams players. As an intelligent and tough player, there’s a possibility he could carve out a bigger role going forward.
Wilson won a job out of camp and played nearly 70 percent of special teams snaps.
— Both Kendricks and Barr are heading into the final year of their contracts. Considering the Vikings have ranked fifth, sixth and first in points allowed with them playing nearly every snap over the last three years, it stands to reason the Vikings will want to keep both. Barr could seek money that would rank among the highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams had a comparable situation last year. They signed Alex Ogletree to a deal with an average annual value of $10.5 million through 2022 and Mark Barron to a contract worth $9 million AAV through 2021.
— The Vikings could look to add another linebacker who can rotate in or take Barr or Kendricks’ spot if they suffer an injury. Chargers free agent Korey Toomer, for example, played 266 snaps in Los Angeles and scored an 80.3 (out of 100) rating from PFF. They could also bring back Lamur.
— Signing both players to long-term deals is not a complete lock. There is a chance that Barr or Kendricks’ price tag is too high. That wouldn’t affect 2018, but it would force the Vikings to sign a free agent or draft a linebacker high next season.
At least for this year, the Vikings’ linebacking situation is one of the best in the NFL. Barr and Kendricks have played under Mike Zimmer for their entire careers and have complete comfort in his system. One thing that will be interesting to watch is whether Zimmer makes changes after being torched by the Eagles. Will the Vikings use dime packages on third downs instead of always having Barr and Kendricks on the field? Will they rush Barr off the edge more often next season in search of increasing their sack totals.