Monday, June 25, 2012

The Vikings (belated) weekly wrap: middle linebacker edition

I won't be writing about the Percy Harvin thing because TBird and Pacifist Viking already covered it here and here. I really have nothing more to add, and the controversy kinda sorta died down when Harvin returned to practise last Thursday and tweeted that he'd see his fans in Mankato.

So I'm going to be writing about the Vikings middle linebacker spot. The favorite to man the position is Jasper Brinkley. But no one – not even the Vikings coaching staff is sure he can handle the job – and last week Brinkley was unable to practise during mandatory OTAs because of either a groin issue (the Vikings explanation) or a hip issue (Brinkley's explanation).

The Vikings would appear to be in some deep shit if Brinkley can't go or his play is compromised because he's still bothered by the hip injury that kept him out all of last year. While middle linebackers don't seem to be as valued as they once were, in the Vikings Cover Two defensive scheme that position is still pretty important. So if Brinkley can't go, who plays that spot? Practice squad player Tyrone McKenzie? Seventh round draft pick Audie Cole? Special teamer Marvin Mitchell?

How about none of the above because a better solution is out there. His name is E.J. Henderson.

Look, I'm fine with giving Brinkley a chance to prove he can do the job (2012 will be a good time for such experiments), but if training camp arrives and he still isn't able to play, signing Henderson to a cheap one-year deal makes immense sense. The defense won't be new to him. He still has the ability to be a good downhill run stopper. Just don't have him playing three downs. Leave that to Chad Greenway and little bro' Erin Henderson.

And let's not pretend that if Brinkley can't make it back onto the field that signing E.J. and playing him will prevent the Vikings from finding out if some other young stud can do the job - there is no other young stud on the roster.

I've heard good things about Cole, yet it would be expecting a lot for a seventh-round draft pick to take over the middle linebacker starting role and do it competently. And McKenzie and Mitchell might not even make the team.

Everson Griffen
Griffen is a talented guy. However, he needs more snaps than he got last year (which was around 10-15 per game) to show that talent. As Judd Zulgad points out, the Vikings are trying to figure out how to do that with the third-year defensive end.

Griffen is sort of the defensive version of Joe Webb for the Vikes. He's a gifted athlete who can do a lot of things. But he plays a position where the Vikings are committed to other options. In Webb's case that other option is Christian Ponder. In Griffen's case that is Jared Allen and Brian Robison.

Griffen is actually in a similar situation to Robison when he was entering his third NFL season. Just as Robison flashed pass rushing ability in limited snaps and we all wondered what he could do with more, the same holds true for Griffen. The Vikings can make that happen by using him more than they did last year as a nickel rusher from the inside, by using him as an outside linebacker now and then, and by spelling Allen and Robison with Griffen to keep the starters fresher.

The Vikings also need to find out if Griffen can be a starting defensive end in this league. In 2013, Griffen will be entering the last year of his rookie contract and will be just 25. Robison will be entering the last year of his contract extension and will be 30. If Griffen is productive in a backup role, my guess is the Vikings will let Robison walk after the 2013 season ends and resign the younger (and likely cheaper) Griffen to take over Robison's starting left defensive end spot. But they can't do that if they don't give Griffen more playing time on Sundays.

6 comments:

  1. I'm not very familiar with the nuances of the LB positions, but what if Minnesota put Griffen and Erin Henderson as LBs and Greenway in the middle? Does that make any sense?

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    1. Peter:

      I'm no X & Os expert, but the problem with playing Griffen at LB is that you're taking him away (most of the time) from doing what he does best - rush the passer. He'd make sense as a 3-4 outside backer who rushed the passer 99 per cent of the time, like Ware or Suggs. But in the 4-3, he'd be asked to cover TEs, running backs, etc a lot more and as athletic as he is, I don't think that's something you want him doing on a regular basis.

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    2. That makes sense - I suppose I was thinking of 3-4 defenses when I thought about a young DE playing OLB.

      The team just can't seem to get away from EJ, and that's OK with me. He can't cover anymore, but your article shows why he'd still be a value to the Vikings, especially if Brinkley is still hobbled.

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    3. Even in what everybody expects to be a rebuilding year, you need somebody who can actually play the position and isn't a complete liability. If Brinkley can't go, I think Cole, McKenzie and Mitchell would be liabilities as starting MLBs. So why not sign a guy like E.J. - who knows the city, the organization, coaching staff and the defense?

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  2. I've written about this in the past, and I think playing Everson Griffen in OLB is a big mistake for a number of reasons (if you're really interested, you can check out my BR article on it here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1237560-vikings-training-camp-why-everson-griffen-shouldnt-be-a-linebacker), but the thrust of it is that I don't like him in coverage or how he bites on play fakes. Henderson and Greenway are much better OLBs, and there is not a person on this planet who can convince me that Griffen would be a good Tampa-2 MLB (before training camp, anyway).

    Greenway's weakness, incidentally, has been at pass coverage - he's a fantastic run stopper and a good pass rusher, so he fits much better at 4-3 OLB. Erin Henderson looked decent at MLB at times, but he's clearly much more at home in OLB. Switching Henderson to MLB, Griffen to Will, and keeping Greenway at Sam is still probably net worse than Greenway, Brinkley, Henderson with rotational help on the line provided by Griffen.

    The comment about 3-4 OLB by Campbell is right on - he's best rushing with momentum in Wide 9 or second level sets.

    Also, I agree with signing on EJ for one year. I can't imagine the FO disagrees, which is why I think their dispute is about the number of years the deal is, rather than the actual money question.

    BTW, just found this blog through Daily Norseman. Good job, guys!

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  3. Arif:

    Thanks for leaving the comment. I don't think anyone was suggesting Griffen would be playing the Mike linebacker spot for the Vikes. He'd be an outside linebacker if anything. But I'm with you on not playing him at all as an LB. leave him on the defensive line, doing what he does best – rushing the passer. I think if they make him their #1 nickel rusher on the inside, plus give him snaps when you want top give Robison and Allen a rest. That would give him plenty of snaps to show what he can do.

    I'm only in favor of resigning E.J. if Brinkley's health becomes an issue. I suspect E.J.'s contract demands are coming down every day it's get closer to training camp – if that were the holdup. Better to have a job at the veteran minimum than no job at all – although I hate seeing productive veterans like Henderson treated this way.

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