Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Audie Cole, Larry Dean, *Gerald Hodges, *Michael Mauti, Tyrone McKenzie, *Marvin Mitchell, Nathan Williams
The breakdown: Minnesota entered the offseason with two pending free agents and likely were only going to retain one, between Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. Shortly after Henderson agreed to a two-year contract, Brinkley signed with the Arizona Cardinals. The loss left a hole, presumably, at middle linebacker until Henderson started taking all of his offseason reps in the middle. Henderson’s move left an open spot on the weakside, though. The Vikings hoped for a resolution in the draft, but one never presented itself after using three first-round picks on a defensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver. Hodges, an outside linebacker, was drafted in the fourth round and Mauti, a middle linebacker, was drafted in the seventh. Minnesota decided it would start the best player and settle Henderson’s position later.
Mitchell was the early leader with his veteran experience until the Vikings signed Desmond Bishop after minicamp. Bishop’s — and thus Henderson’s – spot hasn’t been determined yet. Reportedly Minnesota will look at Bishop inside and outside. Bishop, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury, was likely signed to start and the logical move would be to return Henderson back to his usual position with Bishop taking the middle, where he has spent most of his career as an inside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers. With Bishop expected to be a starter, training camp will decide where the two line up, if Bishop proves he’s healthy and hasn’t lost a step. With Bishop’s signing, Hodges and Mauti get the chance to develop, along with Cole and all three can contribute on special teams without being forced into the starting lineup.
Best position battle: With the three young players in Hodges, Mauti and Cole, Minnesota likely will keep all three and possibly hold onto one veteran backup. Mitchell and McKenzie will likely battle for the final spot, assuming Minnesota keeps seven linebackers on the active roster as it did last season. Dean, who’s been strictly a special teamer, might be replaced by the younger players. Mitchell would appear to have the edge on McKenzie. Both can play on special teams and both probably have the versatility to play outside or in the middle, if needed, in a reserve role.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Vikings; 3. Bears; 4. Lions. Green Bay fills out four spots in its 3-4 defense and while the line is overlooked because of the scheme, the team has at least three solid linebackers. Clay Matthews is one of the top outside linebackers in the game and had 13 sacks last season. The Packers let Bishop go because they had A.J. Hawk, who’s been a seven-year starter and is coming off perhaps his best season, and Brad Jones, who started in place of Bishop last year. Green Bay is hoping 2012 first-rounder Nick Perry can add a pass-rushing element on the opposite side of Matthews. If Bishop returns to his previous level, the Vikings might actually present one of the division’s best groups and turn a weak spot into a strength. It has to be seen whether Henderson and Bishop are playing new positions, though.
Chicago revamped its linebacking corps and might be better for it. Standout Lance Briggs returns and is joined by middle linebacker D.J. Williams and James Anderson on the outside. Williams (Denver) and Anderson (Carolina) both were experienced starters with their former teams and replace the aging Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach. The Bears also drafted Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth round of April’s draft. Detroit is strong in the middle with Stephen Tulloch, but is questionable on the outside with DeAndre Levy on one side and either Ashlee Palmer or Tahir Whitehead replacing Justin Durant. The Lions have neglected the position in the draft and without many higher profile free-agent signings other than Tulloch.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams on what is needed at weakside linebacker if Henderson stays inside: “A guy that’s going to be physical on the lead block, a guy that can drop into pass coverage on our three deeps and two deeps, and overall, a steady football player. We’re looking for a guy who’s steady in there, sound, doesn’t make a whole bunch of mistakes and makes plays when the plays come at him. I don’t really have a wish list for who that is. Just whoever steps up and plays the best. The tape will tell. So I’ll just wait until preseason and see what happens and it all shakes out. It all shakes out itself. Coaches very rarely make many decisions about that. The players make all those decisions with how they play.”