Vikings positional analysis: Linebackers

Posted March 02, 2011 @ 11:55 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

This is the seventh in a series of position-by-position looks at the Vikings' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze Minnesota's LB situation.

Overview: The linebackers overall had a solid season, despite some defensive lapses by the Vikings in 2010. Chad Greenway was a consistent force, E.J. Henderson rebounded from his second straight season-ending injury to turn in a solid showing, and Ben Leber was a respectable two-down option.

The biggest knock was the lack of big plays from the unit. The three starters, who absorbed most of the reps, combined for only two sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions. Henderson, though, did tie for the team lead in picks with three.

The depth, too, is OK, though few were called on to do much on defense last season. Most of the reserves made their biggest impact on special teams.

Here's a breakdown of each of the linebackers on the roster:

Chad Greenway: Playing the strong side in the Vikings' "over" front, Greenway often walked up on the line over the tight end, having to disrupt opponents' kick-out blocks. And though Greenway didn't force a ton of turnovers, he did have a streak of nine straight games with nine or more credited tackles and no fewer than seven in any game this season. That's remarkable, no matter how you spin it. Greenway seldom left the field as a key member of the nickel package. His consistency was his hallmark, but Greenway did make a share of impact plays, although his pass coverage was at times a bit soft. Still, there's a reason why the team used the franchise tag on him — although you could argue that losing Sidney Rice would hurt a lot more, apples and oranges aside.

E.J. Henderson: The mere fact that Henderson played in all 16 games represents an amazing feat and is a testament to his passion, love for football and incredible toughness. The leg injury that ended his 2009 season was gruesome, and frankly, before last season, sources inside Winter Park did not believe Henderson could play much, if any. That said, Henderson's play was uneven at times. He was targeted occasionally in pass coverage, missed a few tackles he would have made pre-injury and had a nightmarish game in the dislocated "home" contest against the Giants in Detroit. But that having been said, he was tough against the run, made the three picks and placed himself around the ball a lot. He's entering the final year of his deal and should be healthier in 2011 than he had been in three years.

Ben Leber: The Vikings likely view him as a piece they can replace, at age 32 and coming off a season in which he played fairly well but didn't do too much remarkable. Of course, Leber was taken off the nickel duty and mostly saw action on first and second downs. Earlier in his career, Leber was a pass rusher; he seldom got those chances last season. He's a nice player and a respected figure in the locker room, but he might move on. He'll help some other team if that happens.

Jasper Brinkley: He filled in nicely for Henderson down the stretch in 2009 after some early growing pains, but Brinkley struggled at times on special teams despite making a fair number of plays, too. Rarely saw the field on defense, though, as Henderson was a three-down performer. Arrow points up, but he might be restricted to the inside.

Erin Henderson: Got in Brad Childress' doghouse early in the season but arose after Childress got whacked. Henderson is not nearly the player his older brother is, needing to take the game more seriously, but he could vie for the open WLB job if Leber leaves. He's a good athlete with potential and has had his moments on special teams, although he also was guilty of his share of mistakes there, too.

Heath Farwell: A Pro Bowl-caliber special-teamer in the past, Farwell's play took a bit of a dip this past season. He still led the club in special-teams tackles but was nowhere close to his 2009 level of performance. It's about 50-50 whether he returns because Farwell makes close to $2 million.

Kenny Onatolu: Like most of the linebackers who play on special teams, his impact was not as strong this season as it was in 2009. He's a solid performer but does little on defense and easily could find himself on the outs.

Outlook: The reserves are mostly fair to middling, and the Vikings could allow Leber to walk in free agency, so a young body or two could join the mix. But with so many other needs (quarterback, offensive line, defensive line, perhaps receiver, safety ... etc.), it might get short shrift in the draft — or not be as high a priority there — and be a position that is left to be addressed later on, once free agency starts.