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Sifting Through The Vikings Linebackers

August 31, 2011

The Minnesota Vikings have two of the top linebackers in the National Football League. In fact, Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson set the bar so high that finding a third player to complement their talents has proven difficult for head coach Leslie Frazier and the defensive coaching staff.

Last season, Greenway and Henderson notched 144 tackles and 105 tackles, respectively. The third member of that trio, Ben Leber, registered 46. This year, however, Leber has moved on to St. Louis and the Vikings still find themselves looking for an adequate replacement.

Erin Henderson, brother of E.J, has been the presumptive starter throughout the preseason. Coach Frazier has publicly endorsed the fourth-year linebacker, but the team’s recent actions may suggest the team’s confidence in Henderson is dwindling.

The news of defensive end Everson Griffen getting snaps at outside linebacker sent waves throughout the Vikings media leading to speculation that the team is looking beyond Erin Henderson to plug their hole at outside linebacker. However, Frazier, as well as defensive coordinator Fred Pagac, quickly squelched rumors of the team’s lack of confidence in Henderson.

According to Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN – Twin Cities, Pagac said moving Griffen has “nothing to do with Erin (Henderson)’s performance.”

Rather, Pagac cited Griffen’s athletic ability as impetus for the possible position change.

“He’s a very good athlete, a great athlete, has good knowledge,” Pagac said. “Before it’s all said and done, he’s going to be a good defensive end (and) he might end up being a heck of a linebacker, too. We just want to check his movement from behind the ball.”

Coming into the 2011 season, the Vikings assumed they had depth at the linebacker position, but injuries to primary backups Jasper Brinkley and Kenny Onatolu have changed those thoughts.

In fact, Jasper Brinkley, who was supposed to push Erin Henderson for playing time at outside linebacker, may be lost for the season with a lingering hip injury. To further cloud the picture, Kenny Onatolu has been in a walking boot throughout training camp with a stress fracture in his left foot, and a timetable on his return is uncertain.

Who does that leave at linebacker for the Vikings? A lot of fringe talent.

Out of the four remaining names, two or three may make the final roster. First, there is the veteran, Heath Farwell. Farwell, a Pro Bowl special teamer, may be expendable with his $1.75 million dollar contract, but his experience may force the team to retain his services. After Farwell, the level of NFL experience lessens. In addition to the Cinderella story of Larry Dean, who has opened a few eyes in camp but remains raw, there are a number of young, undeveloped linebackers: sixth-round pick Ross Homan and recently acquired David Herron. Both players are projects, and whomever makes the team will require time under linebackers coach Mike Singletary to properly develop.

While the lockout muddled the free agency process and forced teams to make early roster decisions, maybe letting Ben Leber walk and sign for a minor – by NFL standards – one year, $1.25 million dollar contract was not such a good idea.

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