Matthew Coller's Vikings training camp preview: Linebackers and edge rushers

The Vikings reloaded their linebacking corps this offseason...
Jonathan Greenard with Dallas Turner behind him.
Jonathan Greenard with Dallas Turner behind him. / Image courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

Welcome to Part 2 of our training camp preview series: Linebackers and edge rushers. Of all the Vikings positions, this is the one that underwent the most construction over the offseason with Danielle Hunter, DJ Wonnum, Jordan Hicks and several depth players leaving. How did they replace them? Who might have a chance to fight for a spot? Let’s have a look….

The starters

Inside linebackers

Ivan Pace Jr.

Around this time last year we wouldn’t have expected Pace Jr. to make the roster. Now he’s expected to be a key piece of Brian Flores’ defense. The undrafted free agent won the starting job out of training camp over Brian Asamoah and never looked back, playing 704 total snaps and ranking as PFF’s 15th best linebacker.

The instinctual inside linebacker was effective across the board, picking up 15 QB pressures and ranking 9th in PFF pass rush grade, 9th in coverage grade and he allowed the lowest yards per reception into his coverage (5.7 YPC) of anyone in the league.

When Jordan Hicks went down with an injury, Pace Jr. was called upon to handle the defensive play calling abilities and handled things admirably. He said in OTAs that it helped him understand everyone’s assignments better going into this season.

Now he enters Year 2 as one of the leaders of the defense with extremely high expectations. It will be worth watching how he adapts to playing with a new partner in Blake Cashman. The fact that Cashman can be used more flexibly than Hicks may open up even more ways for Flores to use Pace Jr.

Blake Cashman

Because so many other things happened to the Vikings’ roster this offseason it might be easy to forget how good Blake Cashman was last year for the Houston Texans. He ranked as PFF’s fourth best linebacker overall, just a shade behind Demario Davis and ahead of CJ Mosley. He rated as a top 10 run defender and in coverage, where he only allowed 7.8 yards per pass into his coverage (9th best). The Vikings may view Cashman has more of a blitzer than he was for the Texans. He only received 38 chances to chase the passer, which is nearly 100 less than what Jordan Hicks was asked to do last year in the same role.

How Cashman appears to fit into the mix early and develops chemistry with Pace Jr. will be on the radar during training camp.

Edge rushers

Jonathan Greenard

It isn’t easy to replace Danielle Hunter but the Vikings found someone with production that was at least in Hunter’s ballpark in Greenard. He put together a 12.5 sack season in 2023 despite ranking 42nd in snaps count among edge rushers. The question for Greenard is whether he can stay healthy and repeat his breakout season. Prior to last year Greenard’s highest total was 8.0 sacks on 215 pass rush snaps. So his history suggests that his adjustment to Minnesota likely rests on whether he can stay on the field.

It will be interesting to see if Flores has any type of multifaceted role for him or if he remains as the right outside linebacker. In Houston he played more than 90% of his snaps on the right side.

Andrew Van Ginkel

One of the most effective pass rushers in the league last year, Van Ginkel had 53 pressures on 321 pass rush snaps and ranked 10th in pass rush win rate. He also rated as an above average run defender and played well in coverage in 147 snaps (just 12 receptions allowed into his coverage for 62 yards). When Van Ginkel played for Flores in 2020 he largely played on the right side, then in 2021 he split snaps between both sides and then in 2023 he was lined up on the defense’s left side. Bottom line: The Vikings signed one of the most versatile players in the league.

It would appear that he will hold down the left side with Greenard on the right but with the presence of first-round pick Dallas Turner there may be a lot of opportunities to mix and match with Van Ginkel. Like Greenard, health is a concern for the ex-Dolphin. He missed OTAs and minicamp recovering from a foot injury that he suffered last year and only played 333 snaps in 2022.


Inside linebackers

Kamu Grugier-Hill

The journeyman linebacker has a lot of experience with over 2,500 NFL snaps but his play has largely hovered around replacement level. Out of 89 linebackers with at least 200 snaps Grugier-Hill ranked 85th by PFF. While he is best used sparingly on defense, the veteran can handle every aspect of special teams and could be even more valuable in that aspect now that the league is attempting to increase the number of kickoff returns.

Brian Asamoah

Heading into 2023 camp we expected Asamoah would easily hold down the starting position but early on it became clear that Pace Jr. was favored by Flores. Throughout the year Asamoah only played special teams, seeing just 36 total defensive snaps. Crazy stat: That’s fewer snaps than Anthony Barr played for the Vikings in 2023. The surprising thing about that is Asamoah played 121 snaps in 2022 and had flashes that suggested he would be a piece for the team moving forward.

Is he locked into a depth linebacker position or could someone else put him on the bubble? Or could he make significant progress after being relegated to the sidelines last year and become one of the surprises of camp?

Outside linebackers

Dallas Turner (R)

The Vikings gave up a heap of draft capital to acquire Turner with the 18th overall pick and it doesn’t take a background in scouting to see why. He was one of the most productive players in college football with the sixth best pass rush win rate in NCAA among starters and 10.0 sacks. At the NFL Combine he ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and posted a 40.5 inch vertical — both numbers in the 99th percentile. You couldn’t build a player better fit for Flores.

How much will he play right away? Will he move around or will they try to lock him into one spot to master first? Will we come away from camp thinking the Vikings got their next great edge rusher or a player who’s going to need a lot of development?

Andre Carter II

The consensus on the Vikings signing Carter II as a UDFA last year was that they landed a player who needed a lot of development but has very high upside. The took the first steps toward that in 2023 when he made the team and appeared in 12 games, mostly on special teams. Carter II got into a few games on defense, picking up 68 total snaps and four total QB pressures.

This year’s camp will be enormous for him. The Vikings did not make any moves to add depth to the outside linebacker position, meaning they are relying on Carter II to make progress and be prepared if there are injuries in front of him.

Pat Jones II

Put Jones II in the category of players who were asked to do too much last season. In 2022 when he played 308 snaps, Jones II graded 62.5 by PFF and was a shade above average against the run and as a tackler. In 634 snaps in 2023 he was the lowest graded PFF edge rusher with at least 600 snaps.

Entering the final year of his contract this will be a make or break summer for Jones II. If he can make a case that he should still be in the rotation despite a more crowded room then he could earn an opportunity to play a role. If not, then there will be young players in camp trying to chase down his spot.

On the bubble

Inside linebackers

Abraham Beauplan

The Vikings brought back Beauplan after he suffered an injury last year during the preseason and was waived with an injury designation. The 5-foot-11 linebacker, who was once named to Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List,” must have shown enough during 2023 camp for the team to be intrigued. He played only 50 snaps in preseason and picked up a handful of tackles. The good news for Beauplan is that the race for specail teams aces and backup linebackers is wide open and he will have a leg up having gotten familiar with Flores’ defense last year.

KJ Cloyd (R)

Former Louisville and Miami linebacker saw his biggest opportunity last year with 393 snaps, 11 pressures, two sacks and 42 tackles. He graded by PFF highly as a run defender and spent time lining up on the D-line and at linebacker.

Put him on the list of long shots who may have a chance to make a name for themselves.

Dallas Gant (R)

This Toledo Rocket had tremendous numbers in the MAC last year, grading as the sixth best linebacker in college football, scoring elite marks in run defense, tackling and coverage. He doesn’t have blazing speed (4.65 40-yard dash at his pro day) but may be another instinctual player that Flores seems to appreciate.

Outside linebackers

Gabriel Murphy (R)

Most draft analysts had the UCLA product as a Day 3 draft pick because of his production, yet he ended up going undrafted despite picking up 8.0 sacks and 61 pressures (7th in FBS) and earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention. He is undersized in terms of arm length and isn’t the fastest (4.68 40-yard dash) but Flores has made it clear from past project players that size isn’t always the biggest factor in success. With a shortage of proven depth there will be reps available if his technical skill gets Flores’ attention.

Jihad Ward

The Vikings must have seen a scheme-specific fit for Ward because his production numbers in eight seasons in the NFL are underwhelming. He’s played for five teams and picked up 18.0 career sacks with a career high of only 25 pressures coming back in 2019. With starter-level snap counts the last two seasons for the Giants he has ranked 58th of 60 and 57th of 59 by PFF grade. Ward will need to prove he can fit into a more limited role and justify holding off a younger player to make the roster.

Owen Porter (R)

Over his last three seasons at Marshall, Porter racked up 18.5 sacks and had a tremendous 2022 with 52 pressures. Porter also did 30 bench press reps at his pro day. Add another productive college player without perfect measurables to the list.

Bo Richter (R)

The Air Force pass rusher had a remarkable 2023 with 10.0 sacks after not registering a single sack as a junior. He ranked just behind Dallas Turner in total pressures and was fourth in PFF pass rush grade. Richter’s pro day numbers by Relative Athletic Scores put him in the 99th percentile with a tremendous 4.56 40-yard dash and 40-inch vertical.


Where will Dallas Turner fit in?

Most rookies, even if they crushed it in college, do not play enormous snap counts right away in the NFL. Will that be the case for Dallas Turner? With Greenard and Van Ginkel, the role that makes sense right away for Turner is as a pass rush specialist on second-and-long and third down. However, players in Flores’ system do not have static roles. The Vikings’ DC could get creative with his rotations or use Turner to keep the snap counts of Greenard and Van Ginkel down. It likely depends on how much they think Turner can take on right away.

Can Andre Carter II develop into a difference maker?

Everyone knew that Year 1 was going to be all about development for Carter II considering where he came from but now that he’s had an entire season and offseason in an NFL program the expectation is that he takes a large step forward and is ready to contribute. Where things become interesting is if he doesn’t shine right away, then there could be chances for someone else to take his spot. If he does have all the dots connect and looks ready to be a rotational player then the depth of the OLB position will suddenly look a lot more sound.

Is Gabriel Murphy the next UDFA success story? If not him, who?

This UDFA linebacker class is loaded with very productive college players who have the door wide open to prove themselves considering the shortage of veteran depth. It wouldn’t be surprising if multiple undrafted LBs ended up on the 53-man roster if they stand out in preseason and training camp. Murphy was the most sought after UDFA, which bumps him to the top of the list, but Gant, Porter and Richter all dominated their levels and appear just as likely to be the next UDFA success story.

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