As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Linebackers
Current starters: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson
Reserves under contract: Audie Cole, Marvin Mitchell, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean
Biggest offseason move: Three of the Vikings’ top four linebackers from a year ago hit free agency. Two – Henderson and Mitchell – were re-signed. The other – Jasper Brinkley – moved on to Arizona. That was a calculated decision by the Vikings, who after doing full evaluations at the end of last season felt compelled to use this year’s draft as a way of finding a new starting middle linebacker.
Level of draft need: High. Chad Greenway and Henderson bring continuity. But the Vikings are without a starting middle linebacker and need to find a guy who not only has athleticism, toughness and coverage ability but has intangibles as an on-field leader and can be relied on as a three-down force.
You should know: The coaching staff feels like Henderson is getting closer and closer to realizing his true potential. That’s why they were vocal in expressing the desire to re-sign Henderson as the starting weakside linebacker. That deal got done with the 26-year-old signing on for $4 million over the next two years.
“He has shown flashes that he can be a good player for us,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “The consistency in his game is what we’re looking for. But we’d rather see that develop with us than someone else. He is so close to being a good all-around outside linebacker.”
Henderson’s biggest issue remains discipline. He made strides in 2012 but will readily admit that at times his eyes still get too big and he wanders out of place in an effort to make big plays that weren’t his responsibility.
That’s been a recurring issue throughout the past two seasons and the Vikings are hoping Henderson has heard the instructions – “Be where you’re supposed to be!” – enough to change his habits.
“He’s a guy who likes to make plays,” Frazier said. “Like most players do. But you need to be able to do it within the scheme of what we’re asking you to do. And he has some playmaking ability. But the most important thing to do is to take care of your assignment first and then some of those big plays you really want to make, they’ll come to you if you’re just where you’re supposed to be. That just comes with having confidence and just believing in what you’re doing. And that consistency will come. But just trust in what the coaches are asking you to do and just be consistently where you’re supposed to be.”
One more thing: Whomever the Vikings draft in the first round as a potential starting middle linebacker may have to compete with Audie Cole to secure that spot. Cole, drafted in the seventh round a year ago, played exclusively on special teams last season. His biggest splash came in the second preseason game when he had two interception returns for touchdowns within 13 seconds of each other.
Cole understands fully that Brinkley’s departure has created a big opening at middle linebacker. And it’s an opening he’s aiming to fill.
“When I left in January, the coaches made it pretty clear there was no one who really owned that [middle linebacker] spot. And they told me I’d have to bring it during the offseason and into camp to earn it,” Cole said. “That’s what I’m now fighting to do. I understand our roster situation right now. And I’m also aware that nothing is going to be handed to me. … I feel like there’s an open playing field and it’s my chance to prove myself.”