Let’s do the bloggy thing and break the Vikings’ linebacker issues down into five bite-sized segments. Starting with number one:
1. What To Do With E.J. Henderson
As Rick Spielman has said over and over this off-season, the Vikings are committed to getting younger. This does not bode well for E.J. who is 31. But age isn’t the real issue for E.J. who is still a reasonably productive player, it’s his knees. E.J. downplayed his physical issues in 2011 but it became clear that he simply can’t be an every-down MLB anymore. The other Henderson, Erin, became more prominent in the nickel as the season wore on and by year’s end was clearly the better Henderson. When you take everything together – age, the knee issues, the fact that he was never all that good in coverage and surely isn’t improving – the obvious move is to thank E.J. for his service and let him walk. Maybe he can catch on with a contending team and contribute to a playoff run. That would be cool.
2. Okay, So If E.J. Henderson is Gone, Who the Heck Plays Middle Linebacker?
The answer to that is obvious: I have no fricking clue. At some point the Vikings will have to address this situation. Here are their options:
1. Re-sign Erin Henderson and move him to the middle.
2. Move Chad Greenway to the middle.
3. Play Jasper Brinkley in the middle.
4. Sign a new middle linebacker.
5. Draft a middle linebacker.
Erin Henderson is probably going to be re-signed but he needs to stay on the outside. So should they move the wildly overpaid Greenway inside? Sorry but I just don’t see Greenway as a middle linebacker in the Cover-2. They need someone there who can actually be effective dropping back. Greenway is a tackling machine but he’s invisible in coverage and he’s not much of a blitzer either (E.J. may not have been able to cover but he could bring some heat up the middle at times which somewhat offset that liability). The obvious choice among those currently on the roster is Jasper Brinkley, who is coming off an injury that cost him the entire 2011 season. I’ve personally never been in love with Brinkley and would not be thrilled to see him start the season at middle linebacker for this team.
I really don’t see a good in-house answer here (actually I do but I want to get to that later). That leaves us looking for a new MLB either through free agency or the draft. I smell segment three coming on…
3. What Could the Vikings Do In Free Agency to Fill Their Need at Middle Linebacker?
There are a few good middle guys available in free agency. Number 1 on that list is Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch would be a clear upgrade over the 2011 version of E.J. Henderson, and at 27 he would fit neatly into the “getting younger” plan. The problem with Tulloch is price. After a really good 2011 season Tulloch is going to get paid. The Vikings are probably going to spend big at wide receiver and maybe at cornerback, so will it really be plausible for them to also shell out big bucks for Tulloch? I don’t see it happening.
Okay so we’re looking for a guy who isn’t very old and also won’t be prohibitively expensive. One guy who jumps out is David Hawthorne. Like Tulloch he is 27. He had a nice year in Seattle in 2011 taking over for Lofa Tatupu. He will get a good-sized contract from someone this year but likely won’t be a bank-breaker. Here’s the rub though: he played all year with a bad knee. Do the Vikings really want to invest a nice chunk of change on another MLB with a gimpy knee?
Hawthorne may be someone worth looking at even with the bad knee. A better choice though might be Dan Connor who is set to leave the Carolina Panthers after spending much of the 2011 season starting in place of the injured Jon Beason. Connor himself suffered injury woes, missing most of 2010 after tearing his ACL, but the knee held up all last year and by all indications shouldn’t be a problem. A quick look at Connor’s stats suggests he is another Chad Greenway, solid-but-not-spectacular, but at least he has experience in the middle, something that can’t be said for Erin Henderson. I’m not suggesting Connor would be the second coming of Brian Urlacher – which is what the Vikings would need to become a truly dominating defense – but he’s a viable option. Maybe the most viable option among all free agents at the position.
We can quickly shoot down most of these other names on the free agent list. D’Qwell Jackson is set to be franchised by the Browns, so no. Curtis Lofton is a really good player but the Falcons won’t let him go. London Fletcher is way, way too old. Guys like Jovan Belcher, Chase Blackburn and Joe Mays are run-stopping guys who can’t cover for crap and are therefore of no interest.
4. What About Drafting a Middle Linebacker?
Barring a trade that scores the team another first round pick, the Vikes won’t be targeting this position until the second round at the earliest. So that means you can forget about Luke Kuechly who is rated by pretty much everyone as the #1 ILB in the draft. The two guys who fit into that late-first/early-second area are Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State and Dont’a Hightower of Alabama. The knock on Burfict as I understand it is that he’s way over-aggressive, like a linebacking version of Brandon Meriweather. In other words he’s not a guy you’d want to bring in and install as an immediate starter, especially in a scheme like the Vikings’. With Hightower, the question seems to be whether he could transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3. He’s a guy who might need a year to learn, meaning he wouldn’t help you much in 2012.
Everything after those top prospects is the usual jumble of names. The one guy there you might keep an eye on is Audie Cole out of N.C. State. He reportedly impressed the Vikings’ staff during the Senior Bowl, especially Mike Singletary who knows a thing or two about middle linebackers (and pantsing himself). He’s rated as a third-rounder at best. He seems like the kind of guy who could move right in and become a solid player. Would he ever become a Pro Bowl middle linebacker though? An Urlacher-level guy or even a Tulloch-level one? It seems doubtful.
5. Aren’t We Forgetting About Someone?
No I didn’t forget about Everson Griffen. I could never forget about Everson Griffen. I love Everson Griffen like I would love my children if I had any children. Griffen can be a total knucklehead at times but he has a nose for the football and his physical freakiness is well documented (he’s 6-3/ 270 and he lines up as the gunner on punt coverage for heaven’s sake!). The Vikes used Griffen some at linebacker in 2011, especially in their seldom-seen 3-3-5 nickel set-up, and he flashed coverage skills to go with his pass rushing acumen. So, the question is, why can’t Everson Griffen become the middle linebacker for the Vikings?
The answer is, I don’t know why. Whenever the idea of using Griffen at linebacker is brought up, it’s always as a replacement for Erin Henderson at WLB or as an OLB in the 3-4 scheme guys like Tom Pelissero wish the Vikings would adopt (give it a rest Scarfy, it’s never happening). Nobody ever seems to seriously consider the notion of Griffen at MLB. There must be some reason. They don’t think he’s fast enough? They don’t think he’s disciplined enough? Smart enough? What is it? I’d like an answer. Until I get one, I’m going to hold onto my crazy dream of Griffen playing MLB for the Vikings in 2012.