Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley is out to prove he can be a versatile starter.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jasper Brinkley has heard his critics dating back to 2009 when he was a fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings.
"He's just a hitter," they would say. "He's a liability in pass coverage."
The analysis was right there on Brinkley's draft biography on the NFL.com website after he was selected: "The Vikings add a hard hitter to their lineup with the selection of Brinkley. The former Gamecock punishes ball carriers and will add a bit of toughness to the Vikings defense. He also fills a need for Minnesota at linebacker."
Now, with his first chance at a regular starting assignment in the NFL, Brinkley remembers the words. As he takes the place of the unsigned E.J. Henderson as Minnesota's starting middle linebacker, Brinkley is ready to play his game and show that the descriptions were misleading. Yes, the 6-foot-1, 252-pound Brinkley is a thumper as a run defender, but he believes he's ready for all of the responsibilities of the middle linebacker in the Vikings' Cover 2 scheme.
"I really haven't had to change much in my game," Brinkley said. "Because coming out of college it's what some scouts dubbed me as, just a hitter. But you know, I can cover. I guess I can show it to you guys this year. To all the critics, I can show it to all the critics."
Brinkley, 26, fell to the fifth round in 2009 after a strong senior season at South Carolina where he was named an all-Southeastern Conference second-teamer. The comparisons to Henderson started immediately, and Brinkley was considered the heir apparent to Henderson.
Brinkley started four games in his rookie season after Henderson broke his femur. But his chance to be a starter was short-lived after Henderson made an incredible comeback from the injury to return the following season. Brinkley played 16 games that year, becoming a key special teams player.
Following last year's lockout, Brinkley was in competition for a starting spot but not in place of Henderson. He was competing with Henderson's brother, Erin, to replace the departed Ben Leber on the outside. But Brinkley needed hip surgery in the preseason and missed all of 2011. In his place, Erin Henderson took advantage of the chance and became a capable starting linebacker.
Fully healthy, Brinkley is now assuming his expected role as E.J. Henderson's replacement.
"I knew I would get the chance," Brinkley said. "But it's up to me to continue to earn it. Nothing's given to you in this league, and you just have to go out and earn your keep every day. That's my mindset, go out and earn your keep every day."
And maybe silence his critics at the same time.
The coaches believe in Brinkley's ability. Overcoming his hip injury might be the biggest obstacle, even more than covering the deep part of the field.
"There are still some things that he's holding back on, and I was talking to him about that this morning," coach Leslie Frazier said last week at Minnesota's organized team activities. "He's got to get to the point where he can let it go a little bit. We're still early. We've only had two practices and we'll see how he progresses over the next few workouts that we'll have. We'll need him to let it go at some point, but he still has some things mentally that he has to get past."
Brinkley is taking as many reps as possible with the first team in OTA practices. This week, he was on the field with the starters at the beginning of Wednesday's open session but seemed to be eased in and later watched 11-on-11 drills from the side.
Neither Brinkley nor his teammates are too worried about his progress right now. His teammates just want him ready for the start of the regular season.
"I tell him every day, ‘I need you in September. I need you in September,'" Erin Henderson said. "I think he understands that. I think he gets that. I think our training staff and our coaching staff understand that as well. You just go out here, you do what you can do, and you try to get better every day when you get a chance to step out on the field. If something don't feel right or is not where you feel is supposed to be, then go sit down. We need you in September."
They'll need him especially in pass coverage. His chance at a starting spot comes, in part, because of E.J. Henderson's decreasing effectiveness in covering downfield following his broken femur. Brinkley will need to show he's capable of playing the run, and pass and his surgically repaired hip will need to let him do both.
He believes he's 100 percent healthy and he's happy he hasn't had any setbacks. Brinkley was around the team often last year while rehabbing and made sure he took part in team meetings so he would stay abreast of defensive plans and coverages. For the most part, Brinkley has been dealing with a normal offseason because he believed he was ready physically by the end of last season.
Finally, he has the chance to prove the draft "experts" wrong and show his versatility. He still hears the critics, but he's trying not to focus on them.
"Like I talk to coach Frazier, that's something I can't worry about," Brinkley said. "I've just got to go out and do what I'm capable of doing. I can't try to play outside of my body, just do what I can do."
If he silences his critics along the way, so be it.