Vikings Top 10 Training Camp Storylines: #5 – Linebacker: What the Heck’s Going On There?
By Dan Zinski
TVA previews the 10 storylines that will be consuming our lives starting on July 26 when the Vikings report to Mankato (full camp schedule available from Vikings.com).
5. Linebacker – What the Heck’s Going on There?
The Vikings ended 2011 with oodles of question marks at the linebacker position. Starters Erin Henderson and E.J. Henderson were free agents, as was primary back-up Kenny Onatolu. A guy they had been counting on to back-up E.J. at middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, ended up spending the entire season on IR and his future status was still up in the air. And none of the younger guys on the roster really looked like anything special.
So how did new GM Rick Spielman deal with this come the offseason? He let Onatolu walk. He re-signed Erin Henderson, who seemed somewhat miffed at the lack of a market for his services around the league, to a one-year deal. He made no apparent move to resign E.J. who remains on the market and may not be on a roster come season’s start. He signed free agent Marvin Mitchell and drafted Audie Cole in the seventh round. He signed CFL star Solomon Elimimian and two rookie UFA’s, Tyler Nielsen and Corey Paredes.
In addition to the new talent, the Vikings also have returning linebackers Brinkley and Larry Dean. And there’s a wild card in the mix in the form of Everson Griffen, who will reportedly begin camp as a linebacker and may be a candidate to receive more time at the position in addition to the joker role he filled at times in 2011.
Now comes training camp and the process of sorting out the jumble behind set-in-stone starters Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway. Several questions will have to be answered by Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams. These include:
1. Is Jasper Brinkley healthy enough to be a reliable starter at MLB?
He missed all of 2011 with a hip injury and already this year he’s missed OTA and minicamp time. According to Brinkley there’s nothing wrong with him and the media are just out to get him. Which is weird because the Vikings themselves have already freely acknowledged that Brinkley hasn’t been 100%. Jasper will be one of the more closely scrutinized players in camp for sure. If he doesn’t lock down the MLB spot, there’s not really an obvious second option on the roster. Marvin Mitchell has played there in the past but he’s Marvin Mitchell. None of the young guys really stick out as true inside backer types except maybe Solomon Elimimian, but he’s a project.
2. What Will Everson Griffen’s role be?
Last year Everson Griffen lined up at linebacker mostly in special third down packages. This year there have been indications that Griffen’s linebacker role will be expanded. Leslie Frazier said, “We’d like to be able to escalate that a little bit and maybe even earlier downs. Get him on the field. We want to be able to get him more than 10 or 15 snaps a game and this is a way to possibly do that. We’ll explore it and see how he comes along in Mankato.” So what exactly does that mean? Everson Griffen at WLB in early down situations with Erin Henderson shifting inside? More exotic nickel looks on early downs to create confusion? Who knows? All that’s certain is, Everson Griffen and his talents need to be on the field as much as possible. He’s a physical freak and a seeming natural-born defensive playmaker. The more the Vikings can utilize him, the better and more dynamic their defense will be.
3. The young guys. What’s up with them?
The Vikings’ youth (and salary-cutting) movement swept away two of the top four linebackers from 2011. They have a veteran in Marvin Mitchell but as with most of the Vikings’ free agent pick-ups this offseason he’s more of a fall-back option. Clearly they would prefer young guys to step up and fill as many roles as possible. The #1 guy to look at as a back-up linebacker/special teams ace in the mold of Heath Farwell is 7th round pick Audie Cole. Though he’s not great physically, he seems to have the headiness and drive necessary to be a solid role player. Leslie Frazier has also spoken highly of UFA Corey Paredes. And no less a personage than Mike Mayock personally endorsed the abilities of UFA Tyler Nielsen. Solomon Elimimian remains something of a wild card in this mix, and of course we can’t forget about Larry Dean who became a solid special teams player last year.
4. How about picking up a veteran during training camp?
No doubt the Vikings’ preference is for Jasper Brinkley to shake his hip or groin problem or whatever the heck it is and lock down the starting middle linebacker spot. Then they can slide in Everson Griffen as a package-specific backer, and a couple of the younger guys as your main back-ups. But the possibility always remains that no one will impress and the Vikes will decide to bring in a veteran just as a stop-gap. And who might be out there as a possible candidate? How about E.J. Henderson? He says he’s 100% healthy and ready to go. This might not matter to the Vikes who are obviously not high on bringing him back, otherwise they would’ve at least contacted him by now. But if we get late in camp and things look dire at the position, and E.J. still isn’t signed, I could see him coming back on a very minimal salary. He might be bad in pass coverage right now but he’s still a guy who can play downhill and give you solid early down run-stopping performance. It’s possible I’m just sentimentally attached to E.J. and this is blinding me to the fact that he’s 100% totally done as an NFL player. Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.
As you can see, a ton is still up in the air here as we roll into camp. The starting MLB spot is a question mark and so are all the back-up spots. That’s how it goes when you’re rebuilding. Should be interesting watching this all sort itself out over the next couple months. We are now less than a week from reporting day.
Previous Top Training Camp Storylines:
10. Breaking In Blair Walsh
9. Percy Harvin Watch
8. Defensive line
7. Matt Kalil
6. Adrian Peterson
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