EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have made wholesale changes this offseason, hitting two of their weaker positions — receiver and cornerback — particularly hard.
Not much thought was given to the linebacker situation. Once Erin Henderson re-signed, the starters for Minnesota’s 4-3 defense seemed set. Henderson was returning to the weakside linebacker spot, joined by one of the defensive leaders Chad Greenway on the strong side. In the middle, Jasper Brinkley was fully expected to ascend to the starting spot vacated by the unsigned E.J. Henderson.
The Vikings tried to add depth with lower-level moves. They signed free-agent Marvin Mitchell and the Canadian Football League’s hardest hitter award winner in Solomon Elimimian and drafted North Carolina State linebacker Audie Cole in the seventh round. Everything seemed to be set with holdovers Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie included in the competition.
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Not so fast, according to coach Leslie Frazier.
In part due to injuries and absences in voluntary workouts, Frazier hasn’t seen the linebacking unit develop like he had hoped, and the Minnesota might be on the lookout for more help at the position.
“You really need six guys you can dress on Sunday to really be effective both on defense and special teams,” Frazier said Tuesday. “We’re trying to find that mix, that quality depth. It’s an area where we’re still not quite there yet in my mind. So, we’ll see how it pans out over the next few practices we have and get to training camp. But it’s one of those areas where, myself and Rick (Spielman), we’ve talked about it and it’s an area we have to keep an eye on.”
One of the scenarios Frazier and Spielman, the general manager, have looked at is adding more competition on the outside. On Tuesday, Frazier confirmed the team’s interest in Brian Banks, the exonerated former prep star who was wrongfully accused of rape and kidnapping and spent more than five years in jail.
Since having his conviction thrown out last month after his accuser was videotaped admitting she had lied, Banks is making his way around to NFL camps hoping to catch on. The 6-foot-2, 239-pound middle linebacker has worked out for the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers and was reported to be in Kansas City Tuesday for a tryout. He will take part in Seattle’s minicamp on Wednesday and Thursday, and Frazier confirmed he could be brought to Minnesota later this week.
“I know in talking to Rick and the scouting staff, that’s something we’ve talked about and there’s a good chance that he may be coming in,” Frazier said.
The depth is needed.
Greenway, signed to a five-year contract extension last preseason, has missed organized team activities while dealing with family matter. Frazier said it’s possible Greenway, who is back home in South Dakota, could be out through next week’s mandatory minicamp. Brinkley has been slowed by a groin injury and hasn’t practiced in nearly a week. Elimimian also is dealing with a hamstring injury.
Larry Dean, undersized and without much experience in the base defense, has been filling in for Greenway with the starters. Mitchell and McKenzie have each seen time replacing Brinkley.
Missing the physical repetitions has been tough for Brinkley, who is trying to return from hip surgery and is line for his first full-time starting assignment in the NFL. He said he’s keeping a pen and piece of paper handy and “staying in it mentally.”
“I’ve got to take it for what it is,” Brinkley said of his rehab. “I could still go out and do something crazy, just by not listening. So I definitely want to listen to (head athletic trainer Eric) Sugarman and them and do everything they tell me to.”
Frazier said he wanted Erin Henderson to “make it clear he’s the choice at the ‘Will’ position.” Ever since Henderson signed a one-year contract to come back to Minnesota he has been expected to build on his strong finish to last season, his first as a starter. Henderson has been more vocal than usual during practices.
While Frazier seems to be searching for more, Henderson said he is taking ownership of his role as a starter and leader.
“I feel like if I don’t I’d be doing everybody else around us a disservice,” Henderson said. “I want to win. I think everybody on the team wants to win, too, but we’ve got to figure out how to do it together. If somebody doesn’t kind of grab it by the horns and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to go. This is the way we’re going to do it. This is the way we’re going to be about it,’ then we’re just kind of shooting in the dark. You never really know how it’s going to go, how it’s going to turn out. So I look forward to embracing that role and coming out here and going to battle with my guys week in and week out.”
Frazier just isn’t sure who Henderson will be going to battle with. All of the injuries are making it tough for his coaching staff to evaluate where the team stands at the position.
“We’ve just got to be able to get the right 11, the best three at linebacker and that’s probably our biggest dilemma right now is just identifying the right three,” Frazier said. “Part of that is with Jasper being injured, you don’t get a chance to really work on the combinations you want.”