Assessing the Vikings' thin group of LBs

June, 21, 2012
6/21/12
1:45
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Despite a near-obsession with the every move of receiver Percy Harvin, I did take some time this week to report on some other facets of the Minnesota Vikings during the first two days of minicamp. We'll get to them in the days and weeks to come, but to me one of the most obvious issues of attention was what the Vikings acknowledged is a situation at linebacker.

At the three primary positions, the Vikings have a cornerstone (Chad Greenway), a returning starter who was retained with a one-year contract (Erin Henderson) and a complete mystery (Jasper Brinkley). Behind that trio is a special-teams player (six-year veteran Marvin Mitchell) and a pile of additional unknowns.

[+] EnlargeThe Vikings' victory over the Eagles guarantees Leslie Frazier at least a .500 record as interim head coach.
AP Photo/Miles KennedyLeslie Frazier will be counting on Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson to lead a thin group of linebackers in Minnesota.
With Brinkley continuing to feel the effects of hip surgery that took place more than 10 months ago, coach Leslie Frazier hasn't hidden his concern. "We still have some things to shore up," he said, "and we would like to improve our depth at linebacker, for sure."

There are plenty of teams with untested backups at linebacker, and in reality the Vikings' situation would be less alarming if Brinkley had been healthy and on the field during minicamp. Instead, he nursed a groin injury that he attributed to the torn hip labrum he suffered last summer and which cost him the 2011 season. In his place was second-year player Tyrone McKenzie, a practice squad player last season who appeared more of a space-filler than a legitimate prospect.

We've told Brinkley's story before. As a fifth-round draft choice in 2009, he replaced an injured E.J. Henderson late in the Vikings' playoff run, making a total of six starts. He spent 2010 as a special-teams player and dropped out of training camp last summer when the hip injury proved too limiting.

There is always a risk in anointing a new starter who missed the previous season, even when the injury is one that typically heals on a reliable timetable. Brinkley got significant work during organized team activities, but it's fair to be concerned about the connection between the groin and hip injuries.

In explaining why Brinkley was held out of minicamp, Frazier said: "We didn't want to create a situation where it became something that was going to be nagging him throughout the time that we are away from football.

"We believe that he'll be ready to go when training camp begins. With our depth at linebacker, it is something that you have to think about from my standpoint. But you can't make him go out there and practice if you know it's going to create some issues for him health-wise. But it does make you a little bit concerned."

I would offer two important caveats here.

First, if holding Brinkley out of minicamp allows him to open training camp with a clean slate, then that's an easy trade to make.

Second, the Vikings could easily protect themselves by taking Brinkley off the field in nickel situations. In a division filled with three-receiver sets, that would make Greenway and Henderson -- both healthy and still ascending -- far more important as linebackers than Brinkley.

Brinkley said this week that he is "not concerned at all" about the lingering physical issues. He is confident he showed coaches enough during OTAs and said: "If I hadn't shown what they needed to see, I'm sure they would have brought someone in here."

I see why Frazier would be concerned about this group. But with Greenway and Henderson, the Vikings are positioned to minimize those concerns.

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