Injuries make weakside linebacker competition a one-man race
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As the odd man out when the Minnesota Vikings used one of their sub packages, weakside linebacker Ben Leber played only 51.1 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
Thus, with the Vikings having committed $10.091 million to Chad Greenway when they placed the franchise tag on the strong-side linebacker, it did not come as a shock when Leber was allowed to depart as an unrestricted free agent after the NFL lockout ended.
One has to wonder if the Vikings are now having second thoughts about their decision.
Leber ended up getting a one-year contract from the St. Louis Rams worth a reported $1.25 million. The Vikings, meanwhile, are hoping Erin Henderson works out as the starter on the weak side. Henderson, signed as a rookie free agent from Maryland in 2008, has played in 21 career games but has never started one.
The restricted free agent tender that Henderson signed is worth $1.2 million, so it's not as if the Rams had to pay Leber big money.
Onatolu was sidelined because of a stress fracture in his left foot early in training camp and did not return until Monday. Brinkley, meanwhile, seemed to be a long shot because he is best suited to play middle linebacker.
He took issue when asked about this. "It's not tough," Brinkley said of playing the weak side. "The keys are just a little different, but it's not tough at all. The middle linebacker in our defense is the hardest."
This might be true but Brinkley's odds of beating out Henderson became even greater when he failed to resemble the hard-hitting, run-stuffing linebacker the Vikings had seen in his first two seasons.
Turns out there was a reason for this. Brinkley did not practice Wednesday because of a hip flexor and Frazier said the issue dates to the end of the 2010 season. The timetable for Brinkley's return is uncertain.
The Vikings have plenty of questions about their backup linebackers and on Wednesday rookie free agent Larry Dean was getting work on the first-team kickoff coverage and return units.
Frazier admits the competition at weakside linebacker hasn't come together as he would have hoped.
"You'd like to have healthy competition," he said, "but that happens in our game. I think Erin would be fine. But you'd also like to have some depth at the position. ... So it hasn't worked out quite like we would have liked as far as the depth and competition at the position. But the fact that Erin has been playing well, that's a good sign for us."
Because Henderson would inherit Leber's role if he does play in the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at San Diego, that means he would not have a full-time role and could be eased in a bit.
But the part-time nature of Leber's role does not mean he did not contribute. Leber was both a locker room leader and a guy who in 2010 had two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Henderson, the younger brother of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, has led the Vikings in tackles in both their preseason games, being credited with 10 at Tennessee and six at Seattle. But a big part of that is because the Vikings are leaving him in longer than many of their defensive starters.
"It's been a little bit of the injuries that we have and the fact that we need to see him," Frazier said. "We need to let him see different blocking schemes that he wouldn't ordinarily see because usually in the past he's been a guy coming into the game late in the preseason.
"Well now you're playing against better players if you're on the first team. So we needed to see him in those situations and let him get confidence that he can handle it in those situations."
Asked what he would like to see from Henderson, Frazier said: "I'd like to see him just continue to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. There are times in the hole where we want him to attack blockers a certain way and as he gets more experience in doing that early on, he should get better. So we've just got to keep putting him in situations where he has to make certain plays that can be difference-making plays."