Is there a weaker position group on the Minnesota Vikings than linebacker? No.
Chad Greenway is the most accomplished player. He is has been a fixture on the team’s defense at strong side linebacker. He took a step backward last season after playing in his first Pro Bowl. He is expected to return to Pro Bowl form this season under Mike Zimmer.
The other spots are up for grabs without a strong leading candidate to start. The weak side linebacker position has been a problem for several years with less than adequate pass defenders.
The options to start opposite Greenway are special teams standout Larry Dean, second-year fourth round draft pick Gerald Hodges, former University of Minnesota and Canadian Football League standout Simoni Lawrence and waiver pick up Terrell Manning.
Hodges and Manning would be the favorites, but the best option would be to acquire one in the first few rounds of the draft. Here are the top five outside linebackers as well as an underrated, an overrated and a sleeper prospect.
No. 1 - Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Mack has continually moved up draft boards and appears like a lock to be a top-five pick. He has very good speed and size. He has the versatility to rush the pass, make plays in the backfield in run support and play in coverage. Coverage is his weakest attribute, but will make up for it with his athleticism. He may be the safest elite player in the draft. The other top-tier prospects may have slightly higher ceilings, but also have more risks to their game.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 251-pound former Bull finished his redshirt senior season with 100 total tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, three interceptions, seven pass breakups, 10 passes defensed, six quarterback hurries, three fumble recoveries, five forced fumbles and two touchdowns.
No. 2 - Anthony Barr, UCLA
Barr entered 2013 as a favorite to be a top-10 pick. He is big and athletic. He was a running back when he got to UCLA. In 2012, he moved to defense and became a pass rushing specialist. His combination of size and athleticism is unbelievable. He is a hard hitter with an explosive burst into contact. He is unlikely going to fit into all defensive schemes with little to no coverage experience. He is going to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme as a rusher.
The 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pound former Bruin finished his redshirt junior season with 65 total tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, one pass breakup, one pass defensed, two quarterback hurries, four fumble recoveries and five forced fumbles.
No. 3 - Kyle Van Noy, BYU
Van Noy has drawn rave reviews and figures to be a first or second round pick. He is a downhill player that will excel on the strong side. He does not have the athleticism or speed to consistently cover running backs or tight ends in coverage. He overcomes his lack of athleticism with a high football-IQ, play recognition skills and toughness.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 243-pound former Cougar finished his redshirt senior season with 70 total tackles, 17.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, 14 quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, one safety and one touchdown.
No. 4 - Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Shazier is a good athlete with position flexibility. He has the tackling skills and physicality to handle the strong side while possessing the athleticism and acceleration to play on the weak side. He does not have the ideal frame, but has a high football-IQ and play-recognition skills.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 237-pound former Buckeye finished his junior season with 143 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, four pass breakups, four passes defensed, six quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.
No. 5 - Telvin Smith, Florida State
Smith may be the best athlete of all the linebackers in the draft. He is a long, rangy athlete with very good explosiveness. He lacks the ideal frame to play near the line of scrimmage, but excels in space. He can play multiple linebacker positions as well as on special teams. He is a fluid athlete that can be overaggressive in pursuit.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 218-pound former Seminole finished his senior season with 90 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, three touchdowns, four pass breakups, seven passes defensed, two quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns.
Underrated - Christian Kirksey, Iowa
Kirksey has been producing since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. He has improved his tackles total each year. He has the athleticism to play in space and the physicality to play in the trenches. He needs to improve his tackling technique and consistency.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 233-pound former Hawkeye finished his senior season with 104 total tackles, five tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, one pass breakup, two passes defensed, seven quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and a touchdown.
Overrated - Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech
Attaochu has risen up the board in recent weeks. He has good straight-line speed, but doesn’t always play like it. He will be a ‘tweener prospect. He will not be able play in space and cover running backs or tight ends. He also does not have the strength or hand skills to get off blocks from offensive tackles.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 252-pound former Yellow Jacket finished his senior season with 45 total tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 12.5 sacks, two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
Sleeper - Ronald Powell, Florida
Powell is a very good athlete with proven pass rush skills. He was the nation’s best high school recruit in 2010, but never got a chance to completely showcase his skill set because of two shortened seasons due ACL tears in the same knee. If his medical checks check out and he proves he can play in coverage, he could be a pretty good find in the middle to late rounds.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 237-pound former Gator finished his redshirt junior season with 26 total tackles, seven tackles for a loss, four sacks and eight quarterback hurries.