[NOTE FROM ADAM: This is another installation of my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings offseason. You can click the links to view previous installments: The Passers, The Runners, The Wide Outs, The Tight Ends, The Offensive Line, The Defensive Tackles, and The Defensive Ends.]
Last offseason, the Vikings faced a crossroads with former first round pick Chad Greenway, and they decided to invest heavily in the outside linebacker by placing the franchise tag on him and then giving him a huge contract extension.
This year, the Vikings face similar decisions with the other two linebackers slots, and the position could be headed for major transition this offseason.
Let’s take a closer look.
As a whole, the term that defined the Vikings group of linebackers in 2011 would be “inconsistent.” They played well at time (particularly against the run) and struggled badly at times (particularly against the pass).
The group’s leader in just about every aspect was strong side linebacker Chad Greenway. Greenway ended the season by making the Pro Bowl roster as an alternate in large part due to a career high 154 tackles, including 13 for a loss.
Greenway, however, seemed to lack his usual playmaking ability. He registered two sacks for the season, a recovered fumble, and two defended passes. Otherwise, he was just not as impactful as he had been in previous years despite being mostly healthy and playing 99.8% of the team’s defensive snaps for the season. Greenway missed 16 tackles and was flagged for five penalties.
E.J. Henderson, how two years after his broken leg injury in 2009, did not appear to be close to his pre-injury self. In fact, swelling experienced in his knee was cause for week two x-rays, he missed two starts, and saw a reduced role in the defense.
Still, Henderson was second on the team with 109 tackles, including 16 for a loss. Henderson was still powerful when playing near the line of scrimmage but was dreadful in pass coverage. Henderson ended his season with two sacks, three defended passes, and three forced fumbles. Henderson missed 10 tackles this season.
E.J.’s brother, Erin, got a chance to shed the stigma that comes with being an undrafted player and he did a decent job of making a name for himself. He manned the weak side position for nearly the entire season, coming off the field for nickel downs, but was able to get some time at middle linebacker when his brother needed rest.
Erin Henderson ended the season with 70 tackles, a sack and a half, and two forced fumbles. He played decently against the pass and didn’t get flagged for a penalty all season long.
E.J. Henderson’s normal backup Jasper Brinkley never played a snap in 2011. He was placed on injured reserve after undergoing hip surgery just prior to the start of the season.
Kenny Onatolu played decently in limited action on defense, making 14 tackles, and even got his first NFL start. Considered to have particular value on special teams, however, Onatolu had a miserable season. He missed three tackles, including one that led to an 80 yard touchdown return by Randall Cobb of the Packers, and had issues with penalties. He was inexplicably offsides on an onsides kick against the Saints and had a dumb personal foul against the Lions.
Undrafted rookie Larry Dean was active for all 16 games and played pretty well on special teams, while veteran Xavier Adibi was active for only four games and made nearly no impact on the special teams.
The Vikings avoided much drama surrounding Chad Greenway by giving him a five year deal worth $41 million, and $19.9 million in guarantees. In 2012, he will be a starter for the Vikings, and is set to earn $5.9 million.
The other two starters, the Henderson brothers, are both set to become unrestricted free agents. E.J. is 31 now and the rod in his leg will make teams view him as less than a full time starter. As much as I hate to say it, as Henderson is one my favorite current Vikings players, I do think he will be departing Minnesota this offseason.
Erin Henderson, age 25, has shown enough promise to warrant a second contract from the Vikings. The question, of course, will become whether or not Henderson wants to see just what his value is on the open market or if he will come to terms with the Vikings. He has received a lot of praise after a good 2011 season, so he might just end up demanding more than the Vikings are willing to give.
Xavier Adibi will also be an unrestricted free agent, but the Vikings will almost certainly let him leave after he could even beat out an undrafted rookie for playing time. Larry Dean will make $465,000 in the second of three years in his rookie contract.
While getting paid $565,000, Jasper Brinkley is entering a contract year with what appears to be plenty of opportunity to earn the starting job in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. Kenny Onatolu will be a restricted free agent, and the Vikings will almost certainly retain him by tendering him at a low level and letting him compete for a job.
Tyrone McKenzie is on the roster with a futures contract. The 2009 third round pick of the Patriots has had a very weird career so far, having at one point walking away from football, but has never registered a single statistic.
If the Vikings can make the salary cap work, this is shaping up to be a perfect offseason to not only replace E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker, but to get younger at the position, too. Stephen Tullock (age 27) of the Lions, Davis Hawthorne (27) of the Seahawks, and D’Qwell Jackson (28) of the Browns could all be hitting the open market in March.
Perhaps even more attractive options are Curtis Lofton (26) of the Falcons and Dan Connor (26) of the Panthers. Connor was Jon Beason’s replacement in Carolina this year, but Beason will recover and make a return, so the Panthers are unlikely to match the offers Connor will get on the open market.
In the discount bin, one could find the likes of Barrett Ruud (29) and Lofa Tatupu (29), both of whom have seen better days, but might still have a few good ones ahead of them.
When it comes to outside linebacker, the Vikings aren’t going to find much in free agency, so Erin Henderson might just be their best solution. Leroy Hill (29) of Seattle and Manny Lawson (28) from the Bengals might be slight upgrades over Henderson, but Rick Spielman has made it clear he plans to give preference to younger players like Henderson this offseason.
It could be argued that middle linebacker is one of the teams top needs this offseason. My favorite defensive player in this draft is Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. His position will make him slip a bit, and it would be considered a major reach for the Vikings to take him at number three, but if they trade back even a few spots then Kuechly will have to be in consideration.
If either Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State or Don’t’a Hightower of Alabama are available when the Vikings pick in the second round, they would also warrant serious consideration. After them, the prospect pool is full of players with potential, but none of them would be considered instant starters and would instead be asked to play special teams and backup roles initially.
Starting in the second round, the Vikings could be presented with a number of options at outside linebacker. Zach Brown our of North Carolina is regarded as the top prospect with incredible range, speed, and playmaking ability. He could end up being available to the Vikings in round two due to some character concerns.
Travis Lewis (Oklahoma), Lavonte David (Nebraska), and Chase Thomas (Stanford) could all also be in consideration in the second and third rounds.
If the Vikings re-sign Erin Henderson, then they are most likely to look towards later rounds to fill in the depth chart. Keenan Robinson (Texas), Mychal Kendricks (California), Jelani Jenkins (Florida), and Nathan Stupar (Boise State) are a few of my favorite sleeper picks in the later rounds.
I don’t see much potential for the Vikings to do much out of the ordinary here. There aren’t really any contracts to restructure, no obvious trade potential, and there aren’t really any restricted free agents worth pursuing.
I’m guessing that the Vikings will let E.J. Henderson test the market while trying hard to retain Erin Henderson.
The middle linebacker position is a tough one to predict. Will the Vikings let Jasper Brinkley battle it out with some second-tier competition, or will they sign a veteran free agent to ensure the position is set? That’s a tough one, and a lot will depend on price tags, but in the end I have to predict the Vikings will place a certain amount of importance on the position and bring in a veteran free agent. For some reason, I keep going back to Dan Connor and thinking he will be the guy.
I think Henderson and Greenway will man the starting positions at outside linebacker. Depth will be filled out by late round picks and undrafted rookies.