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OFFSEASON PREVIEW: Middle Linebacker

[For more previews of this nature, click on the “2010 Offseason Tracker” tab at the top of this screen.]

Middle linebacker is like the quarterback of the defense and the Vikings have some work to do at this position.  It is perhaps the only position in which 2009’s starter will not be back for 2010, and thus could be an important priority this offseason.

2009 Season

The Vikings were thrilled to have E.J. Henderson back in the middle of their defense after his 2008 season was prematurely ended with an injury.  Henderson perhaps seemed a little hesitant and rusty in the beginning of the season, but he quickly got into the swing of things and produced another nice season.  He ended up being third on the team with 63 tackles, 20 assists, and two sacks.  These numbers are particularly impressive considering Henderson missed the last quarter of the season.

In one of the most gruesome injuries of the year, rookie Jamarca Sanford ended Henderson’s injury when he inadvertently hit him in the legs while going for a tackle.  Before they could even show the first replay, many of us fans were already wondering if E.J. would ever even play football again.  He ended up fracturing his left femur, but not all is lost, as Henderson is bound and determined to make a comeback.

This left his shoes to be filled by Jasper Brinkley, a rookie fifth round pick known for his hard hitting.  Brinkley struggled being thrown into such an important role as evidenced by the many plays he was out of position and his six missed tackles.  He did end up making 30 tackles and forcing a fumble, however, and seemed a little more comfortable in the post-season.  Although, Ben Leber was often used in nickel downs and Brinkley came off the field, which was not normal, as usually Henderson would have stayed and Leber would have headed to the sidelines.

Current Roster

E.J. Henderson’s rehabilitation will doubtless be a big story throughout the offseason but there is no doubt that the Vikings cannot assume he will play in 2010. 

Jasper Brinkley showed enough promise for the team to be content with going into next season as the starter.  With the experience he gained and another full preseason under his belt, it is safe to say that he should be an improved option for 2010.

Behind Henderson and Brinkley is a slew of linebackers that could, in theory, play in the middle.  Special teams ace Heath Farwell, E.J.’s brother Erin Henderson, inexperienced youngster J Leman, and CFL star Kenny Onatolu should all have the chance to compete with Brinkley.  However, none of these guys provide a real threat to Brinkley’s starting status.

None of the players mentioned above will see their contracts expire this offseason, and all should be available for training camp.

Unrestricted Free Agency

There are some decent options available at middle linebacker.  I don’t know how well Karlos Dansby would translate to a 4-3 defense, but he is by far the cream of this year’s MLB crop.  Behind him, and probably a better fit for the Vikings, is Gary Brackett.  Larry Foote would also be considered a starting-quality option.  Given the Vikings restrictions in free agency, however, I think all these guys can be ruled out.

Antonio Pierce was recently cut by the Giants, and if I understand the uncapped year rules correctly (that is a BIG “if”) I think the Vikings would not be restricted in any way should they make an offer to him.  I believe players that are cut are not considered in the same category of UFAs as players who simply have their contracts expire, and thus can accept an offer from any team.

Pierce may be a reasonable stop-gap for the Vikings to look at.  I don’t know that he can still play at a high enough level that he would be able to unseat Brinkley as the starter, but he would be an experienced depth player at a position the Vikings have needed depth at two years in a row.

Restricted Free Agency

There are a number of really solid middle linebackers available if a team wants to give up the compensation it takes to get a restricted free agent.  Guys like DeMeco Ryans, Barrett Ruud, Kirk Morrison, and D’Qwell Jackson could all be experienced starters worth considering.

Normally, this is the section where I say “nobody is worth the compensation required” but in this case I’m not so sure.  The uncertainties in regards to the CBA may prevent these player’s from getting the long term, big money deals that they deserve as their teams may be wanting to hold off and see how all these negotiations shake out.

So let’s say that a notoriously cheap team like the Bucs decides to simply tender Barrett Ruud at the highest level.  This means they would receive a first and third rounder or the right to match if another team makes an offer.

To me, any of the four guys listed above would be well worth a first and third rounder to be the leader of our defense for years to come.  I hate to give up draft picks, but spending two picks on a proven star in his prime may be less risky than just using those two picks in the draft. 

Given that the Vikings have the 30th slot in this draft, the value to pull a move like this is far greater than a team like, say, the Browns who have the 7th slot.

Draft Possibilities

Rolando McClain (Alabama) is far and away the best linebacker in this draft.  If he somehow manages to start slipping on draft day, don’t be surprised if the Vikings start making phone calls trying to trade up.  He should fall no further than the Giants at #15, however.

Behind McClain are two options that would be reasonable first round picks and second round steal should they fall.  Brandon Spikes (Florida) and Daryl Washington (TCU) will both be very heavily considered by the Vikings if they are on the board when they select in the first round.  They would be almost sure-fire picks if they are on the board in when the Vikings pick in the second round.

There are a few potential sleepers after that, but these three guys really represent the instant starter caliber linebackers that the Vikings will look to draft.  What I’m saying is that if the Vikings draft a MLB it will be early on in the draft because they have a surplus of backup linebackers and will only take one if they see the prospect as a significant upgrade over Jasper Brinkley.

Trade Possibilities

If the Vikings want to find an upgrade to Jasper Brinkley, then I think they will need to give up high draft picks one way or the other.  The best value, however, will probably be found in restricted free agents or the early rounds of the draft.

I do not expect a major trade to happen because of better options available.

Projections

I think the Vikings will face numerous “All-or-Nothing” decisions this offseason when it comes to middle linebacker.  Because depth is not a real problem at the position, the Vikings would want to find a significant upgrade to Jasper Brinkley if they make a move at the middle linebacker position.

Keep your eye on those restricted free agents, because the value is there should one or more of them only receive tenders and not long term contracts.  The Vikings may be enticed to try and snag a guy like DeMeco Ryans or Barrett Ruud in exchange for a their first and third rounders and a big contract.

If they don’t make such a bold move, then do not be surprised in the slightest should the Vikings spend one of their first two picks on a middle linebacker this April.

However, if the prevailing feeling in the organizations front office is that E.J. Henderson will complete a comeback then the Vikings may be willing to simply put the defense on Jasper Brinkley’s shoulders for the 2010 season and hope for the best.

Keep your eye on those restricted free agents, however…


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5 Responses to “OFFSEASON PREVIEW: Middle Linebacker”

  1. bigjohnny84 says:

    I’m not too concerned if we go with Jasper. He seemed to get better with each game so he seems to have upside. Hopefully EJ makes it back and problem solved.

  2. Lost Viking says:

    The Vike don’t have sufficient Linebacker depth. The situation may be more pressing at OLB than at MLB.

    Although there is some legitimate concern and uncertainty I’m optimistic that E.J.’s injury will permit a full recovery. (It is not an uncommon injury in hockey and a broken leg is seldom a career ender.) That said, should EJ not be able to start ’10 the best option may be to to open with Leber at MLB. Expect Vike to draft an OLB somewhere in 2nd or 3rd round.

    And what happened to Heath Farwell?

  3. Adam Warwas says:

    Lost, Farwell (who I did mention int he article) was unable to beat out a first year fifth round pick for the BACKUP job… something tells me the coaching staff don’t want to be forced to rely on him.

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