Jasper Brinkley's strong performance Friday proved he is capable of anchoring the Vikings' defense.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Jasper Brinkley has been set as the Minnesota Vikings' starting middle linebacker since the offseason, but he might have finally won the job in Friday's third preseason game.
Minnesota didn't add veteran insurance in case Brinkley was slow to develop after missing all of last season after hip surgery. The starting job has been Brinkley's to lose since the team decided not to re-sign E.J. Henderson in the offseason.
Yet, the Vikings had grown cautious of Brinkley's health and his ability to return confident from the injuries. Friday's game against the San Diego Chargers --when he had four tackles and two sacks -- was crucial to regaining the coaches' confidence in him, as much as it was in regaining confidence in himself.
"Very important," coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's a good point, because we were concerned going into the preseason about his health and what has happened over the last year. So, to see him incrementally get better as time has gone on and then to play as well as he did in the third preseason game, that's very encouraging for our entire staff and our defense. It's good for his teammates to see him make the plays that he made in that game. It was very encouraging. We feel much better about where he is now than we did prior to that game."
Brinkley has come through a lot in the past year. He entered training camp last year ready to compete with Erin Henderson for a starting outside linebacker spot. But Brinkley was had surgery during the preseason to repair the labrum in his hip and was lost for the year. He felt he was back to full health by the end of last season and entered the offseason ready to win the starting middle linebacker position, a spot he had been almost groomed for as E.J. Henderson's replacement since being drafted in the fifth round in 2009.
Brinkley's return was slow once he returned to football activities though. Missing minicamp with the groin issue started to create concern. Frazier had said Brinkley needed to regain his confidence and believe that he wasn't going to get injured again.
For Brinkley, it wasn't about regaining his confidence. It was just a process of returning after missing an entire year. He said himself that Friday's performance was important.
"It was pretty big," Brinkley said. "Confidence has never been an issue for me. It was just getting back on the field and getting back used to playing football. I've never doubted myself or anything like that, never been tentative. I've always been a physical guy, not scared to go down and hit anything. The game Friday was great, was great. I just keep continue to build off of that."
Brinkley also knows he had something to prove to his coaches.
"I'm pretty sure I did," Brinkley said. "Your job is never guaranteed in the National Football League and being able to go out each and every week and improve, that's big. That's always big."
Friday, Brinkley showed more aggressiveness in his play and improvement moment. He had two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and plugged the middle of the run defense.
"One of his strengths is being a downhill, in-your-face type guy, but to see him show the lateral quickness that he did and the change of direction that he did, we hadn't seen that as instinctively early on," Frazier said. "So, the fact that he was reacting and responding the way he did, it was good to see. You feel much better about him today."
And Brinkley feels better about himself, day by day.
"I just had to get some games under my belt," Brinkley said. "That was it. Just being away from the game for a year, you don't see everything clearly as you used to when you was on the field a lot. That was big. That was big for me."