The Vikings begin training camp Wednesday. We're previewing camp with a look at each position group. Today: linebackers.
Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Nick Vigil, Cameron Smith, Blake Lynch, Troy Dye, Ryan Connelly, Chazz Surratt, Tuf Borland, Christian Elliss.
In: Surratt (third-round pick), Borland (UDFA), Elliss (UDFA).
Out: Eric Wilson (Eagles).
The outlook is 180 degrees sunnier than last year's debacle simply because the All-Pro caliber Kendricks and the Pro Bowl-proven Barr are healthy again as they head into their seventh season together in Mike Zimmer's defense. A year ago, Zimmer was humbled and headslapped by the worst defense of his 21-year NFL career in large part because Kendricks and Barr played only 1 ½ games together. Barr tore a pectoral muscle in Week 2. Kendricks, meanwhile, was striding toward what would have been a second straight first-team All-Pro season when a calf injury snuffed out his final five games and ultimately the Vikings' playoff chances as well. The injuries at linebacker never let up in 2020. When the Vikings arrived in New Orleans for their Christmas Day game, undrafted rookie Blake Lynch, who had played one defensive snap all season, became the seventh linebacker to start a game. What ensued was a 52-33 humiliation — including Saints running back Alvin Kamara tying a 91-year-old league record with six rushing touchdowns – that will forever serve as one of the worst defensive performances in team history.
No. 3 linebacker. The Vikings use a lot of nickel packages that don't require a third linebacker. However, Wilson will be missed for his athleticism, playmaking ability and durability. He started 23 games the last two years, including 15 last year when Barr was injured. Vigil seems to have at least a slight edge in what could be a wide-open competition for the third spot in the base defense. The five-year veteran, signed to a one-year, $1.75 million deal in the offseason, is a five-year veteran with 39 starts, many of them in similar defenses. Vigil played four seasons in Cincinnati, including two seasons under then-Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, a Zimmer disciple who now serves as his senior defensive assistant. Surratt is the most intriguing player in the mix. The former college quarterback switched to linebacker just two years ago. In those two years at North Carolina, he became the modern-day coverage backer while notching 22 ½ tackles for loss, including 12 ½ sacks. The other players will be given opportunities to prove themselves, including Smith, who is back to full strength after missing last season because of open-heart surgery.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Kendricks. It will be fun to see how much better this already elite player will become with good health and a rebuilt line in front of him. In 2019, Kendricks was an easy first-team All-Pro selection, the very best middle linebacker in football. Last year, he was taking his game to an even higher level as teammates were being felled by injuries all around him. He was at his instinctive best, had a career-high three interceptions and had surpassed 100 tackles yet again (107) when he, too, got injured. Eleven games played wasn't enough to hand Kendricks a second straight All-Pro nod. He also finished second on the team in tackles, 15 behind Wilson, who played all 16 games. It was the first time in his six NFL seasons that he didn't lead the Vikings in tackles. If healthy, he'll regain that top spot and more in 2021.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Can Barr recapture his Pro Bowl form? Barr made the Pro Bowl four straight years from 2015-18. He didn't make it in 2019, played only six quarters in 2020 and then took a $2.9 million pay cut to stay with the team in 2021. After he took the pay cut and got the final two years of his contract voided, Barr told reporters, "I kind of didn't want to go out like that." Now healthy and still on the good side of 30, can Barr rewrite a more desired ending in what now is a contract season for him? Some have clamored for Barr to be more like the head-turning playmaker he was in his first two seasons. Zimmer has staunchly defended Barr as a versatile and vital defensive chess piece that shouldn't be judged by a stat sheet. If healthy, Barr gets to write a new ending or earn his keep for another season or more with the Vikings.