Meetings are taking place at Winter Park this week with the Vikings planning a detailed player-by-player evaluation of their current roster. As they perform their in-house review, we’re following suit and delivering our own snapshot evaluation of each position group.
Get excited: Excited is a bit of a stretch when it comes to this unit. Strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway did lead the team in tackles for a fourth consecutive season, and he did finish third in the league in tackles and make his first Pro Bowl as an alternate. But in the current Tampa 2 scheme, Greenway is often invisible. He made only a handful of splash plays, if that, all season. But part of that is what the current scheme asks of him. Perhaps with a new defensive coordinator, the scheme will be tweaked so that Greenway's speed and athleticism -- not to mention his his $41 million contract -- will be put to better use. Other than Greenway, the linebacker corps is up in the air. Don't expect middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to return. He's had a nice run and should have been last year's NFL Comebacker Player of the Year after returning from a broken femur. But he'll be 32 in August and the nagging injuries that slowed him this year will get only worse next year. His younger brother, starting outside linebacker Erin Henderson, got better through his first year as a starter and also heads into free agency. Both sides should shop around, and if nothing better comes up, reunite for a reasonable price.
Keep an eye on: Barring a surprise, the new starting middle linebacker will be Jasper Brinkley. The same fella who missed all of this season while recovering from major hip surgery. He's young (26) and has low miles on his legs, so he should be OK physically. The problem with him is he's similar to E.J. in that he's a downhill run stopper whose strength isn't covering deep middle 40 yards downfield. Again, the scheme doesn't quite match the personnel. Another player to keep an eye on is defensive end Everson Griffen. There's no vacancy at end and an opening at weak-side linebacker. Griffen needs to play more somewhere. With proper coaching, perhaps he can make the transition to linebacker. The team experimented with that idea briefly last summer, but gave up on it because the transition was too difficult without an offseason to work at it.
Reason for worry: There are many reasons for worry. E.J. Henderson, a leader on the team and a pretty good middle linebacker since 2003, is almost certain to move on. And while it's time for him to move on, his replacement, Brinkley, is coming off major surgery. Was Greenway's lack of big plays the result of the scheme or a sign that he's not the franchise player the team thought he was? And what about the depth, or lack thereof? Xavier Adibi barely played at all this season, even on special teams. Undrafted rookie Larry Dean was a nice story, but he can't start at linebacker in the NFL. And Kenny Onatolu is also a special teamer. The secondary is priority No. 1 on the defense, but linebacker isn't too far behind.