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Updated: June 18th, 2013 11:47pm
Pelissero: Only makes sense Vikings' search for middle LB isn't over

Pelissero: Only makes sense Vikings' search for middle LB isn't over

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There was never any question about the Minnesota Vikings' desire to draft their middle linebacker of the future in April. The question was one of supply and demand.

They weren't going to touch Georgia's Alec Ogletree, given a litany of off-field concerns punctuated by his DUI arrest days before the NFL scouting combine in February.

They probably weren't going to touch LSU's Kevin Minter, given a physical profile (6 feet tall, 32-inch arms) that matched no starting mike linebackers this side of Stephen Tulloch.

The Vikings were comfortable with the complete package of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. But their grade on Te'o put him in a lower tier on their horizontally stacked draft board than all three of players they ended up taking in Round 1.

Situations like this are precisely why general manager Rick Spielman organizes the board the way he does -- to avoid the temptation of filling a hole with a player the team believes is less likely to be a game-changer, just because they have a need.

Of course, that philosophy also can leave a hole. And just because the team moves forward with an in-house solution out of necessity doesn't mean Spielman and company are any more comfortable with that solution in the first place.

That's why it's no surprise the Vikings continue to keep an open mind and speak in relatively tenuous terms about their middle linebacker position, despite Erin Henderson's ongoing proclamations he'll be the guy come Sept. 8 at Detroit.

"In our business, you've always got to be able to adjust," coach Leslie Frazier said after Tuesday's opening practice of the team's mandatory minicamp.

"We're in a position where we needed to find someone to really fill an important role on our defense, and we're fortunate that Erin has the flexibility to get that done. We want to utilize that flexibility."

In other words, Henderson is the best in-house option -- a scenario for which Spielman was prepared when he opted to re-sign his two-year starter at weakside linebacker, not incumbent middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, to a two-year, $4 million contract in March.

But it only made sense they'd at least entertain the possibility of bringing in a player such as Desmond Bishop, a two-year starter in Green Bay who missed last season with a hamstring tear and had a Wednesday workout scheduled with the Vikings shortly after the Packers cut him.

Even if he's healthy, Bishop, 28, probably wouldn't be a long-term solution any more than Henderson, 26. To truly upgrade the position, the Vikings need a player with more speed and range -- and at one point, there was a strong belief that upgrade would come through the draft.

Then defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd fell to them at No. 23 overall and cornerback Xavier Rhodes at No. 25. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was there at No. 29, prompting Spielman to boldly package picks in a deal with New England and reel in another of their highest-graded prospects.

By the time the Vikings were on the board again in Round 4, Ogletree (No. 30 to St. Louis), Te'o (No. 38 to San Diego), Minter (45th to Arizona) and four other inside linebackers were long gone. They ended up taking a flyer on often-injured Michael Mauti from Penn State in Round 7.

Henderson has taken all the first-team reps this offseason and continues to speak definitively about his role. Frazier praised him on Tuesday for his command of the huddle and movement in zone coverage while declining to confirm Bishop would get a workout.

It's not all about Henderson, though. It's about constructing the defense and the roster as a whole the way Spielman and Frazier envision it.

"I think as a veteran, you have to welcome guys like (Bishop) with open arms," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He's a very talented player, has proven that in his career.

"If that's the direction of the organization, that's the direction we go as a locker room. That's just kind of the way it is."

Had the Vikings drafted their next middle linebacker, they still might have shown interest in Bishop. Productive players don't become available every day, and curiosity to at least give Bishop a physical after his release from a rival would be understandable.

As it stands now, though, Frazier continues to mention Mauti and second-year pro Audie Cole in conversations about the middle linebacker. And that probably says everything -- not about their faith in Henderson, but about the reality they didn't intend him to be there in the first place.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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