Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Solomon Elimimian, *Everson Griffen, Tyrone McKenzie, *Marvin Mitchell, Tyler Nielsen, Corey Paredes,
The breakdown: Minnesota devoted much of its resources in the offseason to improving the offensive line, receivers and secondary, as it should have. But those upgrades came at the expense of not addressing its issues at linebacker. And now coach Leslie Frazier is wondering how the Vikings will handle the deficiencies. Frazier has said the linebacking corps is the coaches’ “biggest dilemma” heading into training camp.
Searching for answers, coaches shifted Griffen to linebacker toward the end of minicamp last month and said they want to see if his athleticism can lead to him making a move from defensive end. Griffen played some linebacker on passing downs last season and he told 1500ESPN.com he’s slimmed down to prepare for more snaps at linebacker. Griffen’s unique abilities led him to playing linebacker, end and on the interior of the defensive line last year, along with being a “gunner” on kickoff coverage. Given the chance to play linebacker full time, the athletic Griffen could make the transition work.
But Griffen’s most likely linebacker spot happens to be where Minnesota has its starters set, on the outside. Chad Greenway is a team leader, was signed to a long-term contract extension last fall and is one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. Even after somewhat of a down season last year, Greenway was honored with a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate. He had a career-high 154 tackles last season and his tackles have increased each of the last two years, but he hasn’t made many big plays. The past two seasons, he’s had only three sacks, zero interceptions and one forced fumble. He did have two fumble recoveries last season. Greenway is good, but to be considered one of the best and live up to his contract, he’ll need more big plays.
On the other side, Erin Henderson matured in his first year as a starter and proved to a starting-caliber linebacker. He had 70 tackles and was strong in run defense. Henderson had 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles and was well-regarded heading into free agency for the first time. He didn’t receive the types of offers he thought he would and agreed to return to Minnesota on a one-year deal. If Henderson continues to grow, he will be sought after next offseason and the Vikings will have a tough decision on their hands regarding a quality starter who’s a perfect fit for their system.
Instead of addressing the needs at linebacker, Minnesota moved on from one of its longtime starters. The Vikings let E.J. Henderson reach unrestricted free agency and have named Jasper Brinkley his replacement. E.J. Henderson is still unsigned, and Minnesota doesn’t appear ready to bring him back despite the issues at the position. Meanwhile, Brinkley is slated for the first full-time starting role of his career but is still dealing with injuries. Brinkley, when healthy, has a similar skill set to E.J.’s, but Brinkley missed all of last season after hip surgery and was held out of much of the organized team activities and minicamp because of what Frazier called a groin injury. Frazier still hoped Brinkley would be ready for training camp but admitted his concern with the injuries. Brinkley is the key to the unit for Minnesota because the depth is lacking.
Best position battle: Assuming Brinkley is healthy enough to start the season, the starting three should be set, and Griffen will be on the roster whether it’s at linebacker or end. The rest of the linebacking corps is unknown. Frazier has made it clear he is looking for quality backups and hasn’t found them yet. The Vikings have seven other linebackers on the training camp roster, and any of them could be released as easily as they could make the team. Picking up players cut by other teams during training camp is also a distinct possibility. Each of the linebackers on the current roster will have to prove his worth during training camp, with both the possibility of playing in the base defense as well as special teams. Minnesota used a seventh-round draft pick on Cole, which could mean he has a leg up on the competition as long as he shows some promise. Mitchell was a free-agent signing and has the most NFL experience.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions. Minnesota stacks up reasonably well with the rest of the North, but Brinkley is an unknown and the overall depth keeps the Vikings from being the class of the division. The Bears feature two standout starters in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Green Bay is in a different situation than the rest of the North with a 3-4 defense whose linebackers underachieved last year. But the Packers still feature Clay Matthews on the outside and drafted Nick Perry in the first round to handle the other side to go with Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk on the inside. Detroit re-signed Stephen Tulloch, a big key for its defense, and its outside linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are solid but unspectacular.
Frazier says: “I’m hoping that we’ll find a right mix there. Chad is, of course, solid. We’d like to have Jasper practicing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. We’d like for him to be getting these reps but hopefully we’ll have him next week. We want Erin to make it clear that he’s the choice at the Will position, but we’d like to see Marvin come along and some of the other backups because you really need six guys that you can dress on Sunday to really be effective both on defense and special teams. 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 couple of practices we have and when we get to training camp. It’s one of those areas where myself and (general manager Rick Spielman), we’ve talked about and it’s an area we have to keep an eye on.”