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In signing Anthony Barr, Vikings give themselves a chance to fill Jordan Hicks' big shoes

The Vikings' veteran linebacker was having a career year before his injury on Sunday, so the team is turning to an old friend in his place.

EAGAN — Linebacker Jordan Hicks tried to battle through a leg injury on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints but he could tell that something wasn’t right. Immediately following the game, the Vikings training staff became concerned about the possibility of him having compartment syndrome, which is a potentially serious issue with pressure on the muscle restricting blood flow.

Hicks was taken to the hospital immediately after the game and had a procedure that will keep him out this week as the Vikings travel to Denver to face the Broncos. It’s unclear how much longer he could be out but it became more likely on Monday afternoon that the Vikings are worried about an extended absence when they signed linebacker Anthony Barr, who was a Viking from 2014-2021 and spent last season with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Vikings have already managed to win five games in a row without their No. 1 wide receiver Justin Jefferson and the last two contests without starting QB Kirk Cousins and starting receiver KJ Osborn. Now they must push forward without their on-field defensive signal caller who was in the middle of a career resurgence and played a massive role in Brian Flores’ defense coming to life.

Early in Hicks’ career he was a quality coverage linebacker and playmaker for the Philadelphia Eagles, picking off seven passes in his first two years and grading above average every year by PFF in coverage from 2015-2018. When he landed his second contract, a $36 million deal with the Cardinals, his role changed to more of a blitzer. He created pressures but his performance in the Cards’ system in coverage and overall grades dropped off.

Last year under Ed Donatell the veteran LB graded well as a run defender and finished the season 28th of 52 linebackers by PFF, which is strong for a player who signed a two-year, $10 million contract. This year, however, he has taken on a bigger role with Eric Kendricks gone. Hicks presently ranks as the 16th best linebacker in the NFL and has his highest mark since leaving Philadelphia.

Jordan Hicks PFF grades by year

Jordan Hicks PFF grades by year

While the grades can capture some things about Hicks’ game, like how his play has been at the center of massive improvement by the Vikings against the run, they can’t tell us about how much he has meant to the overall operation of the defense. Flores has a shape-shifting group that can morph at any time from being a blitz-mad aggressive team to a drop-eight coverage team. It doesn’t just happen by itself. There’s a reason the middle linebacker is called the quarterback of the defense.

“It's going to be a huge thing,” O’Connell said. “I can't even put into words how important [Hicks] has been with what we do on defense, how he's communicated. Played a ton of snaps for us and getting us into calls, adjustments in games, adjustments in play.

For now, rookie Ivan Pace Jr. will take over Hicks’ responsibilities. He called the plays effectively during the preseason, which was part of the reason the coaching staff was high on him coming out of camp. But that job is much more difficult during the regular season with the complexity of the offenses that he’s going to be facing. Plus, Pace Jr. might not play in all the same situations that Hicks would be used.

“We've got possibilities based upon the packages we put on the field, but it is a unique thing because that green dot, you don't want to be in a situation where you're taking one helmet off and handing it to another snap in and snap out,” O’Connell said. “Ivan handled it in the preseason and that was one of the things that really jumped out at us, how well he handled that, leading those groups and he's had some work at it throughout the season kind of in spot duty. So, got to get him ready to go.”

Anthony Barr

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Anthony Barr (55) in action during the game between the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. 

In signing Barr, the Vikings give themselves another potential option to manage the defensive play calling while Hicks is out. It seems unlikely that he could play this week against Denver but with only one other game before the bye week, the 31-year-old may be able to operate the system in a few weeks.

While Barr’s value would be more on the intellectual side, it’s worth wondering where he may be physically. Earlier this year there were reports that he planned to sign with the Saints but that deal fell through and he was not able to find another home. With the Cowboys, he played 608 snaps and ranked 38th by PFF overall.

Interestingly Barr was not used very often in Dallas was as a blitzer. During his time with the Vikings, his usage in the pass rush was debated (sometimes between Barr and Mike Zimmer to the media) but he rushed at an above average rate and quite effectively through the years. In 2021 he ranked 10th in pressures by a linebacker and in 2019 he had the sixth most pressures.

It’s no secret that Flores’ defense is predicated on creating pressure, which may have been attractive to Barr. Hicks has already rushed the passer 93 times this season, more than any other linebacker in the NFL.

As far as fits go, it would have been extremely difficult to find anyone better than Barr at this point in the season.

Injuries are a story across the board for the Vikings coming out of their win over the Saints. Alexander Mattison sustained a concussion on Sunday and remains in the protocol. O’Connell could not say for certain if he might be available against the Broncos this week. The team brought back Myles Gaskin, who they signed earlier in the year and then was picked up by the Rams. It appears they may have to lean heavily on Ty Chandler.

“It’s kind of what our season has been, from the standpoint of in the receivers room or the offensive line, the quarterback position, now the running backs, with Cam [Akers] last week and now Alex, but my hope is Alex will progress,” O’Connell said. “What that means for Sunday night, I do not know. We feel good about that depth we have, and like a lot of positions this year, it more than likely will be tested.”

What they have is an extreme lack of experience. Chandler has only carried the ball 29 times over the last two years and Kene Nwangwu has 24 career receptions. DeWayne McBride was a seventh-round pick who has been on the practice squad all year and Gaskin has 10 rushing attempts since 2021.

Justin Jefferson’s status still remains uncertain. O’Connell has been very hesitant to put a specific timeline on his top receiver’s return and Jefferson said last week that he won’t play until his injured hamstring is back to 100% and there is no concern about reaggravating it. Jefferson did tweet following the Vikings’ win over New Orleans that he can’t wait to be back on the field with his teammates.

“We’re going to ramp him up,” O’Connell said. “He handled the workload that we started him out with last week, opening up his window to get him back on the practice field. We’ll see what that looks like throughout the week, maybe a litle bit more here or there. I know he’s, nobody wants to be out there more than Justin… but we’re going to continue to be smart with Justin.”