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Linebacker now a position of strength for Vikings

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — It wasn’t long ago that linebacker was a position that the Minnesota Vikings lacked quality and depth. Tuesday’s trade of starting middle linebacker Gerald Hodges was a sign of how much that has changed the last two years.

Hodges is a versatile 24-year-old athlete who once backed up both outside linebacker spots, started at middle linebacker this season and was considered veteran Chad Greenway’s heir apparent as early as next season. Yet he was traded by the Vikings to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 and rookie center Nick Easton.

Why?

Because Vikings general manager Rick Spielman trusts his depth and believes that rookie second-round draft pick Eric Kendricks is ready to be promoted from nickel linebacker to the team’s first three-down playmaking middle linebacker since E.J. Henderson was in his prime.

“Each week, as you see the more reps he’s getting, the more comfortable he’s getting with the speed of this game,” Spielman said. “And he makes plays when he’s out there. We drafted him because of how strong we felt about him coming out. When we evaluated him in college, you’re starting to see all that come as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL. He’s a very instinctive linebacker who makes a lot of plays.”

Easton is a player the Vikings tried to sign out of Harvard after the draft. He signed with Baltimore and was traded to the 49ers on the final cutdown day. He’s considered a long-term project and possible replacement for 33-year-old Joe Berger, the backup who is now starting while John Sullivan recovers from back surgery.

Meanwhile, the sixth-round pick Spielman acquired replaces the sixth-rounder he used to trade for backup guard-tackle Jeremiah Sirles on the final cutdown day.

–Kicker Blair Walsh missed another mid-range attempt and people are going more restless with him by the week.

In four games, he has missed a 44-yard field goal, a 33-yard PAT and last Sunday’s 38-yarder, which he hooked badly because he was overcompensating for the tentative approaches that caused him to push his other misses wide right.

Spielman took his leap of faith on Walsh during training camp. With a year left on his rookie contract, Walsh was given an extension that will make him the fourth-highest paid kicker in the NFL.

This came a year after Walsh made a career-low 74.3 percent of his field goal attempts. What followed was a 5-for-11 preseason and enough regular-season misses to make every attempt a hold-your-breath moment for coaches, teammates and fans.

Spielman, however, is determined to ride out the storm with the kicker who was All-Pro first-team as a rookie in 2012.

“Blair is going through a little bit of a slump here now, but I think there’s no question that he’s our kicker,” Spielman said. “This happens sometimes with young players. (Punter) Jeff Locke had some struggles last year and this year he’s punting lights out. Part of having young players is sometimes you’re going to have to get them through that adversity.”

NOTES: WR Mike Wallace didn’t practice Tuesday. He has an undisclosed injury that’s not believed to be serious. …DE Justin Trattou (foot) could be out for a while. He is on crutches and in a walking boot. … RT T.J. Clemmings played particularly well in the run game during a two-game winning streak that came at home, but struggled with Denver’s relentless pass rush on the road. He gave up four quarterback pressures and two of the seven sacks allowed. … NT Linval Joseph continues to be a stout and efficient under-the-radar presence in the middle of the defense. He had four tackles and batted down a pass on Sunday. …CB Xavier Rhodes continues to be the team’s best cover man, but he had a rough second half, particularly the first series of the third quarter. During that series, Rhodes was flagged for pass interference, a horse-collar tackle and gave up a 43-yard completion. Rhodes also was flagged for pass interference on Denver’s game-winning field goal drive late in the fourth quarter.


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