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Zone Coverage: Where do Vikings linebackers rank in the NFC North?

Drew Mahowald of Zone Coverage digs into the second level of the defense.
Anthony Barr

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

The Minnesota Vikings have had at least one standout linebacker on the roster for nearly 15 years, dating back to the draft selection of Chad Greenway and the prime of E.J. Henderson. Minnesota’s defensive effectiveness has certainly fluctuated during that time as defensive play-callers have come and gone. But what hasn’t changed is that athletic, instinctual linebackers can wreak havoc for opposing offenses.

Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr both fall into that category and each have played a large role in vaulting the Vikings defense to the top of the ranks over the past few seasons under head coach Mike Zimmer. The tandem of former UCLA Bruins is one of the best linebacking duos in the NFL.

But where do they rank in the NFC North? Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit (well, not really Detroit) boast linebackers that have proven their worth at the highest level.

Let’s get to the ranking of the NFC North linebacker groups.

(NOTE: This ranking does not consider 3-4 outside linebackers that play a pass-rushing role. EDGE players were considered in Zone Coverage’s ranking of NFC North defensive line groups.)

4. DETROIT LIONS

The Lions have been weak at linebacker for a while now. When they drafted Jarrad Davis in the first round of the 2017 draft, all of their problems at linebacker were supposed to be fixed.

Needless to say, Davis has not panned out and has likely lost a starting spot in 2020.

Jahlani Tavai stepped into a large role as a rookie last season and showed promise. His role was limited for most of the season, but he performed the best both in coverage and stopping the run. His potential development into a solid starter is the best hope the Lions have for moving out of the No. 4 spot in these rankings by next year.

Christian Jones also played a large role last season and is expected to again in 2020. However, he ranked 80th out of 88 qualifying linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. It’s worth noting that Jones wasn’t even the worst Lion, as Davis ranked 83rd.

Head coach Matt Patricia did add Jamie Collins to the linebacker group, which should provide some stability and reliability at the position. But let’s face it, the Lions are definitely No. 4 in the NFC North.

3. GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers have made a significant change at the linebacker position during the 2020 offseason, letting Blake Martinez go and replacing him with Christian Kirksey. At this rate, given how the Green Bay defense is schemed by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Kirksey might be the only linebacker that sees a notable number of snaps. Of course, other unproven players such as Curtis Bolton or Oren Burks will likely have the chance to earn playing time.

The ironic thing here is that the Packers had the opportunity to draft an inside linebacker to, at the very least, solidify the linebacker depth. Instead, Green Bay chose to draft a backup quarterback, an old-school running back and a fullback with its first three picks.

Kirksey has been a solid player for a long time in the NFL when healthy. However, he has struggled to stay on the field in recent seasons. The middle of Green Bay’s defense will be extremely vulnerable if Kirksey goes down.

2. CHICAGO BEARS

Both Chicago and Minnesota are miles ahead of Green Bay. However, the Bears get the No. 2 spot just because they don’t have Kendricks. They do have Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, however, which is a pretty darn good tandem.

Trevathan brings a Super Bowl pedigree to the table from his years in Denver. He’s a wily veteran with solid instincts and great leadership skills.

Those traits are a great fit to pair with Roquan Smith, the young linebacker that has shown incredible promise early in his career since he was drafted No. 8 overall in the 2018 draft. Smith is a tackling machine and has a nose for the football. He could be next in the long line of legendary Chicago Bears linebackers.

Chicago’s defense has been outstanding the past two seasons, and this tandem is a big reason why. Both of them are back in 2020 and will have something to say about the decline of the Chicago defense everyone keeps talking about.

1. MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Kendricks and Barr carry the Vikings to the top spot in the NFC North linebacker rankings. Barr is not as consistent as Kendricks, but the flashes of brilliance are there.

Barr has exceptional range to cover lots of ground quickly for a man of his size, which is useful when plugging holes in the run game and when covering tight ends or running backs out of the backfield.

Kendricks, meanwhile, has become a superstar. He led the league in forced incompletions among linebackers during the 2019 season.

The instincts are the most impressive part of Kendricks’ game. He can sniff out plays so quickly that it sometimes catches the opposition off guard. And of course, the athleticism is there, too. He can keep up with a running back downfield in coverage, something few players at his position can do.

Kendricks earned a nomination for PFF Defensive Player of the Year and earned the top PFF grade because of his elite play in 2019. And he’s sticking around in 2020, unfortunately for the rest of the NFC North.

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