Note: For the next seven weekdays, we’ll take an exclusive look at the Vikings’ draft. We’ll combine positions on some days in order to address as many areas as possible. Check for a new post each day through April 28.
The issues: When healthy, the Vikings have featured a quality linebacker trio of Chad Greenway (strong side), E.J. Henderson (middle) and Ben Leber (weak side) for the past four seasons. But Henderson had dealt with two serious injuries in the past three seasons, missing most of 2008 after dislocating toes on his left foot and then suffering a fractured left femur late in the 2009 season. He made a remarkable recovery to start 16 games last season, but at some point the injuries could begin to take their roll on a player who will turn 31 in August. Leber, meanwhile, will be an unrestricted free agent when a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
What they have: Henderson will return for a ninth season in 2011, assuming there is football, and the Vikings will hold their breath that he can again stay healthy.
Henderson, who will be entering the final year of his contract, finished second on the Vikings last season with 139 tackles (according to the coaches’ film), and added seven tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.
His three interceptions tied safety Husain Abdullah for the team lead and were the most among NFL linebackers in 2010.
The Vikings thought enough of Greenway that they used their franchise tag on him just before the lockout began, meaning that if that tag holds up in the new CBA, he would be guaranteed around $10 million for the 2011 season.
Greenway was the Vikings’ first-round pick in 2006, the 17th selection overall, and has not missed a game since the 2007 season, starting 66 of the 67 games in which he has played (including playoffs).
He led the Vikings in tackles each of the past three years, getting credit for 149 in 2010 with 10 tackles for loss and a sack. There is little doubt the Vikings want to get a long-term deal done with Greenway once the NFL has labor certainty.
The backup most likely to compete for a starting job is 2009 fifth-round pick Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley stepped in as a rookie at middle linebacker after Henderson was injured and while he struggled against the pass, he also showed a willingness to hit and be involved at every opportunity.
Coach Leslie Frazier voiced a desire at the NFL owners meetings last month to get Brinkley and Kenny Onatolu more involved on defense. The issue with getting Brinkley more time is that he’s best suited to play middle linebacker.
Backup strong-side linebacker Heath Farwell, like Onatolu, is a major contributor on special teams and thus is considered very valuable even if he doesn’t play on defense. E.J. Henderson’s brother, Erin, is a three-year veteran who had a restricted free-agent tender placed on him by before the work stoppage began.
Erin is listed as a backup at weak-side linebacker but only played in nine games last season. He did play in four games after Leslie Frazier replaced Brad Childress as coach and tied for fifth on the Vikings with nine special teams tackles.
What they need: There is a chance the Vikings won’t be able to keep Leber – in part because of how much they’ll owe Greenway -- and if that’s the case there is a chance the team will have to look outside the organization to replace him.
This issue could have been partially resolved if free agency had started on schedule in March but that did not happen because of the lockout. Leber isn’t a flashy player, but he has been a steady presence since signing as a free agent in 2006 after spending his first four seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
Leber has missed only one game in five years with Minnesota and that came in 2006. He has most often been the linebacker who came out in nickel (passing) situations but was more a nod to Henderson and Greenway than it was a slight against Leber.
Texas A&M’s Von Miller is the top outside linebacker in this draft and will be long gone before the Vikings pick 12th overall in the first round. Pro Football Weekly’s list of top outside linebackers after Miller includes North Carolina’s Bruce Carter (top-50 pick); Georgia’s Justin Houston (top-50 pick); UCLA’s Akeem Ayers (top-50 pick); and Fresno State’s Chris Carter (third- to fourth-round pick).
The Vikings have nine picks in this draft, including two in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds so it’s possible they could look for a linebacker. Waiting for free agency would be more dicey because no one knows when it will start or even exactly which players will be free agents.
There also is the potential that Frazier, new defensive coordinator Fred Pagac and new linebackers coach Mike Singletary have seen enough film of a guy like Erin Henderson or Onatolu that they feel they could be developed at the weak side if Leber lands elsewhere.
Given Frazier’s statement about wanting to get Onatolu more involved, he would seem to be the leading contender to compete for the job.
Conclusion: It won’t be surprising at all if the Vikings elect to take a linebacker in this draft with a third-day pick. Last year, the Vikings surprised many by taking Minnesota’s Nate Triplett in the fifth round. The pick was a reach and Triplett ended up being cut. The Vikings brass, however, knows that if nothing else a linebacker should be able to make an immediate contribution on special teams.