Intern Matt: Position Battles Abound For Vikings At Traning Camp
Story by AM 1390 Intern Matt Bigelow
When Mike Zimmer took over as the Minnesota Vikings head coach, mass changes were necessary. Everybody knows about the team’s issues at Quarterback and those questions still need to be answered, but perhaps the team’s biggest issue last season was the defense. Giving up three last-minute touchdowns and blowing a handful of other leads, the Vikings defense ranked in the bottom 3 in the NFL.
Enter Zimmer, a proven defensive minded coach who built up Cincinnati into an elite defense. Tasked with fixing a dreadful defense, Zimmer and the Vikings organization took an under the radar, but aggressive approach to filling holes in Free Agency and the Draft.
There are two intriguing position battles that have yet to be decided as the Vikings head into their first preseason game:
The NFL is very much a passing league and because of that, third corners are essentially starters. As teams run primarily out of nickel sets which take slower Linebackers off the field and put extra DBs on, the Vikings need to figure out who will be that extra player. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn have virtually locked up two of the three spots. The most sensible candidates for that third spot are Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, and Derek Cox.
Robinson flashed as a rookie and has the speed to hang with the burner type wide receivers, but he struggled mightily as a sophomore when asked to play in the slot. Sherels is an excellent punt-return man, and has the toughness to make the team, but his coverage skills are not great and his size could be an issue if forced to match up with the mammoth WRs of the NFC North. Derek Cox is the most proven of the group and has excelled in a scheme similar to the one Zimmer employs, but he’s injury prone.
The Vikings have not allocated significant resources to upgrading their middle linebacker in quite some time. At this point last year, Erin Henderson looked poised for a break-out season and the questions were about who would fill the other outside spot. Henderson is gone and there have been a bunch of different guys fighting for the spot.
Jasper Brinkley was signed by the team over the offseason from the Arizona Cardinals
and is listed as the starter on the current depth chart. Brinkley is a classic “thumper” type linebacker who will do well against teams running the ball inside, but lacks the speed to make an impact when teams run outside or pass the ball downfield. Audie Cole started a few games late in 2013 and looked decent in relief. He’s worked with the team as an OLB before Anthony Barr took off and now he’s back in the mix as the starting Middle guy. He’s not great against the run but he has the length and speed to make an impact against the pass. The dark-horse candidate in an indirect way is Gerald Hodges. Hodges is a second-year man from Penn State and has the speed and athleticism to be an impact player against the pass. Hodges isn’t going to be the MLB but he’s gotten reps with the first-team defense in Nickel situations as an Outside Linebacker. In these cases, Chad Greenway moves from his outside position into the middle. If the Vikings spend a majority of their time in Nickel, with only two linebackers on the field, Gerald Hodges could be a guy that plays a lot.
Both of these position battles are far from decided and I suspect we will see a lot of tweaking and fixing during the preseason games. Zimmer has always played a lot of guys and rotates guys with specific skills frequently, so it may not really matter who is listed as the starter when the season begins. Either way, both of these positions are incredibly important and if the Vikes can find reliable guys to fill them, it would go a long way in shoring up a very leaky defense.