Beyond Barr and Kendricks, Minnesota’s Linebackers Are Uncertain

Last season, we learned what happens when essentially all of the starting linebackers get injured. Anthony Barr went down early with a torn pec, and Eric Kendricks missed the final handful of games. Beyond those two, though, there were also injuries to Ben Gedeon and Cameron Smith, severely depleting what was supposed to be a position of strength heading into last season. Also, don’t forget that Troy Dye went down for a 5-game stretch. In other words, Minnesota’s linebackers were put in a bad position last year.

To avoid a similarly disastrous defensive fate, the Vikings will be hoping for not only greater health, but also some of the depth players to emerge. Kendricks will be elite; Barr ought to be solid. After those two, it’s a lot of question marks.

The Near Guarantees

Fans, by and large, have been underwhelmed with Anthony Barr from his sophomore season onward. A seven-year-vet, Barr was chosen 9th overall in 2014. After his rookie deal, Barr signed a 5-year, $67.5 million deal that has since been renegotiated to bring it down to the current one-year, $10 million. The issue is that many fans feel like the team hasn’t gotten fair value for that money. He has so, so much ability and often fades into the background.

One thing is certain, though: we ought to be getting a motivated Barr. At 29, Barr’s playing days are quickly coming to an end. The reality is that he won’t have too many more opportunities to sign sizeable contracts. That’s likely the main motivation behind his restructured deal. By shifting around money and trimming years, Barr can return to Minnesota for another year, show that he’s healthy, and then try to sign one more large contract. The end result ought to be some strong play on the field.

At this point, it’s a near certainty that Kendricks will be the leader among Minnesota’s linebackers. It’s hard to believe that he’s still so underrated. The Vikings have him under contract for three more seasons. He’s making a very reasonable $12.4 million this year, a number that jumps up to more than $13.5 million next season before dropping down to less than $11.5 million in a couple years. His on-field play far exceeds these numbers.

In the above video, you’ll see Kendricks cover Davante Adams – perhaps the best WR in the NFL – one-on-one. Aaron “Voldemort” Rodgers has plenty of time and space to throw a great pass to his #1 receiver. The issue, of course, is that Kendricks has the speed and intelligence to stick with Adams. Without any hyperbole, we can say that it’s a truly sensational play that most corners would fail to make. We’re lucky to have Kendricks in purple.

Apart from Barr and Kendricks, the only near guarantees are Troy Dye and Chazz Surratt. Minnesota’s habit is to stand with their draft picks, so these two linebackers should be on the final roster. How much they play is an entirely different matter. Dye struggled mightily as a rookie, but that’s within the context of his injury and an uncharacteristically awful Vikings defense. Surratt is an undersized, relatively old rookie LB who converted from QB. Like Dye, he’s a strong athlete, but one can reasonably wonder how ready he’ll be.

The True Competition

If you hop over to the ESPN depth chart, you’ll see that there are a ton of depth options. Nick Vigil, Cameron Smith, Blake Lynch, Tuf Borland, Ryan Connelly, and Christian Elliss are all competing for a roster spot.

The favorites for that final spot (or two) ought to be Vigil and Smith.

Vigil, a 2016 third-rounder, put together just over 300 snaps on defense last year. He finished with a lukewarm 60.6 PFF grade. He spent last year with the Chargers, but his first four came in Cincinnati. He played 92% of the defensive snaps for the Bengals in 2019, accumulating 111 tackles while starting all sixteen games. His PFF score was an uninspiring 54.3 during that year, suggesting he may benefit from a more sheltered role.

Full disclosure: I’m cheering for Smith to be one of Minnesota’s linebackers. It’s hard not to cheer for the guy. He missed all of last season due to a condition that required open-heart surgery. He has since battled back to give himself a shot at pursuing an NFL career. Gotta love that resilience, especially when you remember that he was initially cut by the Vikings so they could put in on the practice squad. He has only been active for 5 games in the NFL; in that time, he has been a special teamer and depth option. He’s still only 24 and Minnesota chose him in the 5th round of the 2019 draft.

Fans will recognize some of the other names in the above list, but it’ll be a surprise if any of them make the final roster.

How Will Things Shake Out for Minnesota’s Linebackers?

I think they keep five, so the competition for the final spot is going to be really intense. From my vantage point, it’s looking like Barr, Kendricks, Dye, Surratt, and Vigil. I’ve been wrong before, though, so fans ought to proceed with some caution here. I also think it’s entirely plausible Minnesota opts to keep 6 linebackers given their ability to contribute on special teams.

Have a different opinion? Let me hear about it below.