Considering all the changes to Minnesota's defense heading into the 2021 season, the linebackers group is returning six of its members from the 2020 season.
Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are entering their seventh and eighth NFL seasons, respectively, and look healthy and raring to go. They will not be joined, however, by Eric Wilson, who signed with the Eagles in free agency after playing a significant role in the Vikings packages – and stepping in for injured teammates – the past two seasons.
Troy Dye, a fourth-round selection out of Oregon in 2020, and undrafted free agent Blake Lynch were able to partake in their first real offseason program after COVID-19 forced a fully virtual experience last spring.
Cam Smith is back on the field after undergoing open-heart surgery last year, and Minnesota native Ryan Connelly, whom the Vikings grabbed off waivers last September, also remains on the roster.
The Vikings added former Charger Nick Vigil during free agency, and they drafted Chazz Surratt out of North Carolina in the third round. Finally, Minnesota signed undrafted rookies Tuf Borland (Ohio State) and Christian Elliss (Idaho) to compete.
With U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp on the horizon, it's the perfect time to dive in and discuss the linebackers group.
Will the Barr/Kendricks duo return to full strength in 2021?
Chandler and Joey. Timon and Pumbaa. Buzz and Woody. Barr and Kendricks.
The former UCLA roommates have teamed together since their Bruins days, save for Kendricks' senior collegiate season/Barr's rookie year with the Vikings.
The duo has a bond like no other off the field, whether traveling internationally or supporting one another's philanthropic efforts, and that chemistry is clear on the field, as well.
But Barr and Kendricks played just one-and-a-half games together last season due to a torn pec that sidelined Barr from Week 2, on. Wilson stepped in admirably for Barr, but losing the most experienced linebacker – and the player who typically relays calls for the defense – was sorely felt.
Kendricks put together a solid campaign, recording 107 tackles, four tackles for loss and six passes defensed, as well as snagging three interceptions. But he also fell victim to the injury bug and missed the final five games of the regular season.
Any time a team loses a starting linebacker, it takes a toll. And when you lose two? The defense surely takes a hit, as Vikings fans witnessed in 2020.
Barr and Kendricks both have bounced back and look ready to go for training camp next week. If the two stay healthy through the season, hopefully they can help the defense as a whole rebound from last year's disappointing campaign.
"Unfortunately, I felt like I was having one of the best seasons of my career, and I wanted to obviously to help my team win games," Kendricks said earlier this summer. "Being on the sideline was obviously disappointing, but we've been rehabbing, been recovering and feeling good, so I'm looking forward to this upcoming season."
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said having Barr back in the fold "is huge" for the team.
"There's so many things he does for us that go unnoticed," Zimmer explained. "He's our signal-caller and makes all the checks for us. And he's extremely smart. … I think he's going to have a great year. He's moving around great, has gotten stronger and we've got some different looks for him that can enhance the way we use him."
Who will replace Wilson as LB3?
As mentioned above, Wilson signed during free agency with Philadelphia and left a vacancy at the third linebacker spot.
Minnesota doesn't always play three linebackers, often going instead with a nickel defense; but when the team is in base, who is the most likely to join Barr and Kendricks?
It's too early to tell, but fans should certainly keep an eye on a combination of returning players and new faces competing for the responsibility.
"We're rotating those guys. We'll rotate Troy and Cameron Smith, or we'll rotate Chazz in there some. Nick Vigil has rotated in there some. We're just going to see who's the best player," Adam Zimmer said.
The Vikings three preseason games, decreased this year from the four generally scheduled for teams from 1978-2019, will give Minnesota's coaching staff a better look at the linebackers' in-game performance following team drills throughout camp.
"It's the guy who's consistent and makes the fewest mistakes, but also makes plays. We want playmakers out on the field, just like Eric and Anthony are," Adam Zimmer said. "We'll have a lot of good looks at it through the preseason, and we'll decide who the third linebacker will be."
Will revamped d-line provide more opportunities for Minnesota's LBs?
As Craig Peters wrote in yesterday’s position preview, the Vikings defensive line is set to look drastically different than it did in 2020.
Minnesota should have Danielle Hunter back after the defensive end missed all of last season with a neck injury, and Stephen Weatherly will be able to compete for the other end spot after spending 2020 with the Panthers. Michael Pierce joined the Vikings as a free agent more than a year ago, but he opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns. He is expected to anchor the interior of Minnesota's line along with Dalvin Tomlinson, whom the Vikings added through this spring's free agency.
One thing Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson have emphasized over the years is the way one position's success – or lack thereof – impacts another's, and that was felt in 2020.
The Vikings struggled to push pressure on the passer all last season, which meant (1) opposing QBs had more time to make a decision with the ball, and (2) there were fewer opportunities for linebackers to make the splashy plays.
If Minnesota's revamped defensive line sees better production in 2021, it will free up the linebackers to make more plays and also likely allow them to more often combat the run, which the defense is known to do quite well.
Kendricks was asked about the Vikings defensive tackle additions and said the following:
"Man, I'm excited. Personally, as a linebacker, standing behind those guys, what else could you want? What else could you ask for? I'm truly blessed, excited to play with them and, yeah, I feel like we have a lot to look forward to."