Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.

Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.

Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.

What to do with defensive free agents: Vikings linebacker situation needs addressing

Posted by: under Vikings, Lions, Chad Greenway, Vikings draft Updated: February 19, 2013 - 11:30 AM

The NFL Combine officially gets underway Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And while the hype of the event will center mostly around the 40-yard dash times, bench press reps and shuttle runs of the more than 300 draft prospects invited to participate, some of the most significant action of the week occurs behind the scenes as NFL general managers and front office personnel meet with agents to begin discussing the approach of free agency.

At this stage, league rules state that teams are only allowed to talk with the agents of their own players. So with the Vikings needing to make decisions on 10 unrestricted free agents who are scheduled to hit the open market March 12, here’s our quick update on where we think things might be headed.

Today, we look at the team’s four defensive free agents. (And in case you missed it, here’s Monday’s look at the Vikings’ UFAs on offense.)

Jasper Brinkley

The preseason worries that Brinkley might be a major liability up the middle of the defense didn’t last long. After shaking off the rust in the preseason, Brinkley put his 2011 hip injury behind him and quickly flashed his strengths as a guy who can get downhill in a hurry and be a solid force against the run. His 117 tackles ranked third on the team behind Chad Greenway (191) and Harrison Smith (129). But it didn’t help that the 27-year-old Brinkley saw his effectiveness dip when he was asked to play extended snaps as the Vikings’ MLB in nickel packages. By season’s end Erin Henderson had reclaimed those responsibilities and Brinkley hadn’t lessened worries that he has deficiencies dropping in to coverage.

The likely move: In order to take the next step as a defense, the Vikings will need to find a number 2 linebacker who can fully complement Greenway. And they certainly need to find a guy who can have maximum productivity playing every down. So now, with Brinkley, Henderson and Marvin Mitchell all nearing free agency, the team faces the risk of losing three of its top four linebackers from 2012. It’s unlikely all three players will get away. In fact, it would not be a surprise if at least two of them are back. But the Vikings will also assess what could be available for them in free agency and the draft. In other words: the final decision on Brinkley depends on several other moving parts.

Erin Henderson

Déjà vu. Henderson was an unrestricted free agent last year, too. But it took 10 days after the market opened for him to re-sign with the Vikings. Henderson was peeved at that time that he hadn’t been offered a bigger pay day – by anyone. But the Vikings did the right thing in allowing the market to set the appropriate price. What resulted was a one-year deal with a base salary of $1.45 million. Henderson hoped to then have a big 2012 season and land a much, much bigger deal. So here we are again. Who knows how much last year’s foray into free agency has altered Henderson’s mindset? But he best be realistic with what he’s worth as he seeks out his best opportunity.

The likely move: Henderson’s 2012 stats: 112 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. He was solid overall. But Patrick Willis he is not. And he still suffers from moments when, in his own words, his eyes get too big and he tries to make plays that either aren’t his to make or just aren’t there. (See: the 5-yard touchdown catch Green Bay’s Greg Jennings made in Week 17 with Henderson inexplicably releasing Jennings to run uncovered into the end zone.) As we mentioned, Henderson is one of three Viking linebackers headed for free agency. So all three of their situations will in some way be intertwined. Brinkley and Henderson are both represented by Sportstars, Inc., which theoretically should eliminate some of the guesswork on that side of things for how the Vikings are viewing the pecking order. Right now, Brinkley may get the edge as a better bargain. But it’s also quite possible Henderson is brought back.

Jamarca Sanford

One of the surprise contributors of 2012 should see his hard work and high energy rewarded. After losing his starting job as a safety in training camp, Sanford returned to that role in Week 4 after Mistral Raymond dislocated his ankle. And the 27-year-old Sanford started the rest of the way – though he did finish the season sharing time with Raymond. He’s still a bit small (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) and sometimes deficient in pass coverage. But Sanford compensates for his handicaps with his work ethic.

The likely move: The Vikings’ long-term plan seems to be for Raymond to emerge full-time as the second starting safety alongside Harrison Smith. But Sanford’s value as dependable depth should not be taken for granted. While he may never ascend to be a major playmaker, he’s exactly the kind of player the Vikings coaching staff and front office wants to build around. He’s unselfish, he’s low maintenance, he’s passionate and he’s willing to invest to get better.  Add into the equation that he’s always been a terrific special teams player and there has to be a spot open for Sanford to come back. In fact, safety and running back are probably the two positions the Vikings could afford to leave untouched as they transition from 2012 into 2013.

Marvin Mitchell

With Henderson sidelined by a concussion in September, Mitchell started twice and aided solid defensive performances in wins over the 49ers and Lions. He was also a dependable contributor on special teams. It’s no secret that the Vikings depth at linebacker right now is average at best. With Brinkley, Henderson and Mitchell all approaching free agency, that leaves Chad Greenway, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean and Audie Cole as the only linebackers signed for 2013.

The likely move: Of all the Vikings UFAs, Mitchell’s case shouldn’t draw much more than a shrug and an “Hey, either way” reaction. Like offensive lineman Joe Berger, if he returns great. And if he doesn’t, his spot shouldn’t be difficult to fill. Mitchell would love to come back if it’s the right situation. And he seemed to fit in well within the locker room in 2012. Henderson and Brinkley will be the first pieces of the linebacker puzzle that need to be figured out. But Mitchell would be an easy guy to keep in the mix.


Houston 23 FINAL
Pittsburgh 30
San Diego 10/23/14 7:25 PM
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Chicago 98 FINAL
Cleveland 107
New Orleans 88 FINAL
Washington 84
Milwaukee 120 FINAL
New York 107
Philadelphia 88 FINAL
Brooklyn 99
Charlotte 114 FINAL
Atlanta 117
Sacramento 99 FINAL
San Antonio 106
Memphis 103 FINAL
Dallas 108
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Arkansas State 7:00 PM
Connecticut 10/23/14 6:00 PM
(18) East Carolina
Miami-Florida 10/23/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
So Florida 10/24/14 6:00 PM
Troy 10/24/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
BYU 10/24/14 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 10/24/14 9:00 PM
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Montreal 10/24/14 5:30 PM
Saskatchewan 10/24/14 8:30 PM
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay Noon
Nov 2 - vs. Washington Noon
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago Noon
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay Noon
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina Noon
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets Noon
Dec 14 - at Detroit Noon
Dec 21 - at Miami Noon
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago Noon




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