The three starting linebackers for 2018 are more or less set. Anthony Barr at Sam (strong side), Eric Kendricks at Mike (middle), and Ben Gedeon at Will (weak side). But the depth of the group is a wide open competition between rangy greenhorns, dejected castoffs, and incumbents with caveats.
Last season, Gedeon was in a bit of a fight for the two-down linebacker spot, and most thought he would be a depth or special teams piece with a limited future. But Gedeon blew the others out of the water, leading to the departure of depth pieces like Ed Robinson and Elijah Lee. When he was at Michigan, he was a leadership figure, but took a rotational role in Minnesota. Despite moving from middle linebacker to weak side linebacker, he stayed consistent enough to raise few questions about whether or not he should have been the guy. However, when Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks were hurt, the Vikings turned elsewhere to replace the full-time starters.
This season, Gedeon faces little to no challenge to his hold over the two-down outside linebacker position. The most he has to gain from a good preseason is to earn the opportunity to get more reps should one of the main linebackers go down. He could feasibly implode this preseason and lose his job to someone in a miracle, but that seems unlikely. Ultimately, Gedeon’s 2018 snap count depends a lot more on who the other team puts on he field than Gedeon’s play itself.
Brothers came from Mizzou as a productive linebacker, but butterflies got the best of him at the Combine, leading him to fall to the fifth round. Still, a college tackle record was enough to turn heads. Minnesota picked him up and mostly played him on special teams in his rookie and sophomore seasons. Here, he excelled, but didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself as a linebacker in regular season action. Unfortunately for Brothers, he was recently suspended for the first four games of 2018 due to a PED violation, which means that he’d return to the team in week 5.
Brothers, and everyone else on this list aside from Gedeon, are in a giant open battle for the last three linebacker spots. Ed Robinson, Elijah Lee and Emmanuel Lamur have all left, leaving the room wide open. Brothers is probably safe in his roster spot thanks to a nice special teams year in 2017, but his suspension provides a mini roster spot for someone else until week 5. With an awful preseason, the Vikings may opt to cut Brothers and keep more athletic linebackers on the roster, but that would be an extreme case. What Brothers is competing for is more about the Vikings’ plan in the event of an injury to Kendricks or Barr.
Eric Wilson managed to resurrect his career from a transfer, which is ultimately a rare accomplishment. Wilson transferred from Northwestern to Cincinnati to pursue a situation with better opportunities, missing out on valuable college development thanks to the NCAA rule that requires players to redshirt a year after transferring. He came in as an undersized linebacker with an outside shot at the roster. But by the graces of an eye-popping preseason performance, he made the 53-man and kicked out veteran draftees. He learned to be a versatile backup, able to fill it at any linebacker position, as well as contribute on special teams.
This season, Wilson’s roster spot is no guarantee – but his pedigree as a Viking veteran gives him a valuable leg up. Wilson will likely have to continue to impress on special teams, but his versatility and work ethic give him the tools to do so. Wilson will have to fend off young newcomers and castoffs, but is a favorite headed into camp. Unlike most incumbents, Eric Wilson could crater in the preseason and lose his spot to one of the hopefuls below him. When your pedigree is built off of last year’s preseason, this year’s can have just as great an affect.
Needham, as of this writing, is the newest Viking. He comes from Southern Utah University, which doesn’t often send players to the NFL. Should Needham play in the regular season, he’d only be the tenth Thunderbird alumnus to do so. This may be because Southern Utah often sends its student athletes on mission trips spanning years, interrupting their college careers. Needham himself spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Mexico before returning for the last three seasons, and regaining his form. This is a huge accomplishment – two years off is enough to sour any college career. He wasn’t drafted (only three SUU players ever have been), but was the subject of a bidding war between the Rams and Cardinals. The Cardinals got him to minicamp, where he failed to make the 90-man roster. His NFL chances circled the drain until Hercules Mata’afa tore his ACL in offseason workouts.
Needham’s size and speed give him reasonable upside, and potential to excel on special teams. While many mid-June additions are written off as afterthoughts, Mike Needham has a better chance to make the team than most in his situation. He doesn’t have an NFL career sullied by cuts, and he has a full four year college career (albeit a fragmented one) to build from. He’ll have to show out on the punt and kickoff teams, as well as in backup Sam duty, to make the 53-man. If he doesn’t make the team, he makes for a decent practice squad candidate thanks to his athleticism. Though, at 24, his ceiling may be fast approaching.
Cliett took a relatively standard path into the NFL – be a staple college player at a small school, get drafted late, start with your new team. But Cliett suffered a knee injury in front of the Hard Knocks cameras in his rookie preseason, his second such injury (he suffered one in high school). He failed to make the team the next year, but was put on the Broncos practice squad. After a half dozen or so weeks there, he moved to the Jets practice squad, then the Cardinals, leading to the end of the year. He signed a futures contract with Tennessee, but was waived before camp. He was claimed by Kansas City, got hurt, and spent the 2017 season on IR. Over the course of three seasons, he had worn six different jerseys, spent two seasons on IR and hasn’t taken a single regular season snap.
Cliett’s career has been a waiting game, but Minnesota could provide him his best opportunity yet. If any of the ability that got Cliett drafted two season-ending injuries ago remains, he should be able to out-class undrafted free agents and similarly casted off competition. He plays on the outside, and once had the athleticism for an NFL future. But he’ll need to prove that he isn’t damaged goods to knock the other hopefuls out of the roster.
Downs was a superstar from the get-go at Cal, leading the team in sacks his freshman year and never looking back. But his chances to scream into the NFL draft were cut short by an injury in his senior year. This put him in a nebulous situation – a team could draft him high for his potential, or low because of the risk of his injury derailing his career. He was forced to sit out of the NFL Combine and other pre-draft opportunities. As draft day dragged on, Downs’ name wasn’t called. Eventually, demoralized, he and his father went to the grocery store to pick up a meal. In that moment, he received the call from the Vikings. Downs is still rehabbing, but should be able to participate in his rookie training camp.
Downs played middle linebacker in college, but has the build and athleticism to try all three positions. Knowing the Vikings, he’ll likely be tested everywhere as well as on special teams. As a 7th round pick, Downs is far from guaranteed a roster spot, but if he doesn’t make it, it’s likely because he isn’t fully healthy yet. This makes him a good practice squad candidate as he finishes up rehab, and would try the roster again in 2019. Downs has enough upside to cruise to the roster if healthy, so the story surrounding him in camp will be about just how much healthy tape he can put out there.
Dooley was recruited as an inside linebacker into Wisconsin from Rochester, Illinois. Wisconsin moved him to outside, which may have taken him a while to get used to – he didn’t get any action until his third year in college, and it took another year for him to be the team’s starter. That’s not unusual, however, in college football, and Dooley excelled. By the time he was a senior, he’d grown into a quiet leadership role (the Vikings do love Big Ten linebackers with leadership qualities). He went to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, but didn’t show enough athleticism to get drafted. The Vikings signed the Fortnite aficionado almost immediately afterwards.
Dooley comes with an interesting puzzle attached to him – should he play inside, where he played in high school and is built better for, or outside where he played with the Badgers? The Vikings will probably try a little of both, but the answer to this affects who he competes with. Much like Eric Wilson, his size is working against him. No matter which position he’s trying to win, he’ll have to show that this isn’t holding him back to pry his way into the 53. With limited upside, it makes him a less enticing practice squad candidate. Garret Dooley has a lot riding on the next month or two of football practices.
Williams wasn’t highly recruited out of high school in Birmingham, Alabama, but ended up at Georgia Southern. Save a medical redshirt year halfway through, he played since the moment he got there, and played well enough to get drafted by the Lions. He excited people in Detroit with his blue collar mentality, complete with a cute anecdote about him installing a dishwasher when he found out he was drafted. But after a rotational rookie season, Williams was surprisingly cut before last season instead of competing to start like most Lions fans thought. When a player gets cut, it destroys any and all excitement surrounding them. In that moment, he went from promising possible starter to a practice squad player. The Vikings put him there, where nobody tried to poach him, and he eventually signed a futures contract.
Williams’ experience with the Vikings coaches gives him a leg up, but he’ll have to solve the special teams problems that doomed him in Detroit. This year, the depth linebackers don’t really have a chance to earn a starting spot outright, so special teams becomes paramount. Williams plays the strong side like Anthony Barr does, and will likely compete to back him up, replacing Emmanuel Lamur. If he specializes there, it could give him a leg up over players who are trying to learn the position for the first time or split their reps between all three positions. But improvement on the punt and kickoff teams will be the most important part of his roster prospects.
Western Illinois isn’t exactly a blue-chip football program. A lot of small-school talents get overlooked – after all, how close can you look at all these tiny programs scattered across the country? These small school kids need all the help they can get to get noticed, which is why Brett Taylor was so frustrated to be snubbed from the big All-Star games in the draft process. But he continued to grind, found his way into the Northwestern Pro Day, and was able to turn some heads with his polish and range. The Vikings picked him up after he fell out of the 2018 draft where he’ll join three other rookies in the linebacker room.
Taylor plays mostly inside in a 4-3, but is capable of rushing the passer which makes him a good fit for the Vikings’ defense. This versatility may give him a leg up on similarly sized Eric Wilson with whom he’ll be competing. He’ll need to mostly stand out on special teams to earn a roster spot, but the practice squad is always a possible landing point. As with all the young linebackers in the room, the opportunities are ripe for the picking. The Vikings have room for players who would otherwise be considered “camp bodies,” meaning they all have a chance to realize their NFL dream in spite of whatever hardships put them on the 3rd team.
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