MANKATO – Jasper Brinkley was only gone for one season, and it felt like a blur. But as he turned his head to watch his Vikings teammates, more than half of whom joined the team over the past 18 months, walk off the field at Minnesota State Mankato, he acknowledged how much has changed around here since he departed for the desert.
Gone are a couple of his buddies, longtime Vikings defensive standouts Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Mike Zimmer has replaced Leslie Frazier as head coach. And General Manager Rick Spielman has continued to turn over the roster to make this a younger, hungrier team.
“It’s a different philosophy,” Brinkley said of these Vikings. “Coach Zimmer and Coach Frazier are two different coaches. Both are great coaches but with different coaching styles. That’s the biggest difference. And there are a lot of different players. You know I don’t see Jared anymore. I don’t see Kevin anymore. Those were guys I was accustomed to talking to and working with.”
Back after one year with the Arizona Cardinals, the team’s preseason opponent Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, Brinkley feels at home in Minnesota, the place where his NFL career began five years ago.
And while he will be lining up against a Cardinals team that cut him after one season as a backup, it is a little silly to suggest that Brinkley will have revenge on his mind. After all, this game will mean nothing in the standings and a lot when it comes to Brinkley’s chances of securing a starting spot.
“I just want to go out and play my best game because it’s the next game,” Brinkley said.
A feisty downhill run defender who signed a one-year deal to return to the Vikings, Brinkley feels he is a good fit for Zimmer’s “linebacker-friendly” scheme. He is lining up as the first-team middle linebacker in the base defense and is trying to convince the coaching staff to expand his role while he battles Audie Cole for a starting position.
“We are pleased what both of them have brought to the table,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said.
In Arizona, Brinkley certainly didn’t have the role he envisioned when he signed a two-year deal as a free agent. He started three of the first four games of the 2013 season before being relegated to backup duties behind Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. He played just 202 defensive snaps and finished the season with 27 tackles. He was released in February.
“It went by so fast,” Brinkley said. “I will definitely remember a lot of things about Arizona, especially the defense. We had a good defense out there last year. So that was major. I had a good year.”
Both the Vikings and the Buffalo Bills courted Brinkley in free agency. But Brinkley said that this was the best opportunity, signing a $830,000 deal to return and play for Zimmer.
“He does a good job of getting the calls right, most all of the time,” Zimmer said. “He’s got some thump to him. He’s got some instinctiveness in the running game.”
But while he was in the middle of the base defense for much of the spring workouts and training camp, Brinkley has been chained to the sidelines in passing situations as Chad Greenway and rookie Anthony Barr, the team’s top draft pick, are the ones being trusted to cover backs and tight ends.
“I definitely want to be on the field every down,” the 29-year-old said. “But the way it’s going right now, I just have to make do with what I have right now.”
Pass coverage has never been Brinkley’s strong suit. Last season, opposing quarterbacks had a 107.4 passer rating when targeting Brinkley, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2012, when he was an every-down player for the Vikings, he allowed quarterbacks to post a 113.6 rating in his coverage area.
But Brinkley believes he is a better pass defender than he has been given credit for.
“I’ve improved in my coverage every year,” Brinkley said. “I guess it’s a tag that people give you. When people give you a tag, it’s hard to shake it.”
Brinkley’s smile quickly returned when he talked about familiar faces he can still spot among these new-look Vikings.
“It’s great to be able to come back with the guys I started out with — Phil Loadholt, Jamarca Sanford,” Brinkley said. “We’re the only ones left from that ’09 draft class. So just having the opportunity to come back and be with my buddies is great.”