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Updated: May 27th, 2013 1:33pm
Zulgad: Vikings enter OTAs looking for answers on defense

Zulgad: Vikings enter OTAs looking for answers on defense

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings will begin Organized Team Activities this week with a few storylines that will be worth following as a team that went from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 in 2012 attempts to take another step forward.

Here are three of the most intriguing on the defensive side of the ball:

Move to the middle: All indications are that the Vikings will open OTAs with Erin Henderson at middle linebacker. Henderson has yet to play a snap in the middle in the base defense and this already has been a big discussion point.

Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, who was the starting middle linebacker in the base last season, both spent time as the Mike linebacker in the nickel in 2012. Brinkley signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent this offseason, leaving a hole for the Vikings to fill.

There was speculation that Brian Urlacher might be signed to replace Brinkley but the former Chicago Bear announced last week he is retiring. That means this looks as if it's Henderson's job to lose and that could be an issue for a franchise that has its sights set on returning to the playoffs.

Henderson told Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com that he's upset because he feels like he's getting no respect when it comes to taking over in the middle.

But Henderson appears to be missing an important point here.

Yes, there is legitimate concern about whether he can make the transition from starting weak-side linebacker to the middle, but the other real concern is who is going to replace Henderson on the weak side? The Vikings have a very good linebacker in Chad Greenway on the strong side but after that it gets dicey and a look at the current depth chart doesn't exactly build confidence.

Coach Leslie Frazier committed to nothing during the Vikings' rookie minicamp this month saying that Henderson playing in the middle is "in the conversation" along with second-year pro Audie Cole, journeyman backup Tyrone McKenzie and seventh-round pick Michael Mauti, who won't practice until training camp because he's coming off another knee reconstruction.

The Vikings also drafted Penn State outside linebacker Gerald Hodges in the fourth round last month and could give him a look on the outside, if Henderson is in the middle. But does moving Henderson to a new position and having a rookie on the outside sound like a good solution for a team with a tougher schedule and high expectations?

Nonetheless, if the Vikings come out of their OTAs and minicamp in June feeling that Henderson can survive playing full time in the middle it won't be surprising if they end up crossing their fingers and hoping this works.

Jared Allen's future: The defensive end told the Star Tribune last week that he has "absolutely no idea" where he will play beyond the 2013 season.

The guess here is Allen should say his goodbyes this year because he won't remain in Minnesota.

This isn't a knock against Allen but more an acknowledgement of how the Vikings appear to be doing business now that general manager Rick Spielman is making the key decisions. Allen is entering the final season of a six-year contract and is scheduled to make $14,280,612 in base salary, with a cap number of $17,063,961 -- both team highs.

Allen is 31 years old and saw his sack total go from 22 in 2011 to 12 last season in large part because he was dealing with shoulder and knee problems. He is entering his 10th NFL season and the fact he rarely is willing to come off the field means there is plenty of tread on the right end's tires.

Allen likely will get one more big contract but it's hard to believe that will come from Spielman and Co. The Vikings are proving again this offseason that more often than not they prefer to reward players based on potential rather than reward guys for what they have done. That is the wise thing to do.

The Vikings also will have free-agent decisions to make on defensive ends Brian Robison (30) and Everson Griffen (25) and defensive tackles Kevin Williams (32) and Fred Evans (29) next offseason. Don't be surprised if Griffen ends up being priority No. 1 and Williams and Allen are allowed to land elsewhere.

Replacing Winfield: As they made moves in free agency in March, including retaining right tackle Phil Loadholt with a four-year, $25 million deal, the Vikings took a gamble by releasing veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield.

Winfield had been due $7.25 million for 2013 and the Vikings hope was that they could create more spending room by convincing the 14-year veteran to return at a lesser price.

It didn't work.

Winfield accepted a one-year, $3 million contract from Seattle with $1 million in guarantees, even though the Vikings offered him more guaranteed money.

The Vikings now have their work cut out for them replacing a guy who provided leadership on the field and was at his best playing inside against the slot receiver in the nickel defense. If Winfield had returned, it's likely he would have stepped into the nickel role full time and given up the starting left corner job to first-round pick Xavier Rhodes.

Still, considering the amount of time teams are in the nickel defense in this pass-happy-league, Winfield would have played a very important role. Winfield, despite being only 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, was an extremely hard hitter and playing inside he almost served as a hybrid cornerback/linebacker. Replacing that won't be easy.

The starting corners likely will be Chris Cook and Rhodes, that's assuming Cook can stay healthy, and the auditions for the nickel job will begin. Josh Robinson, a third-round pick in 2012, and A.J. Jefferson, whom the Vikings obtained from Arizona just before last season, likely will battle for the nickel job. Unless one of them has made huge strides, neither comes close to Winfield's abilities. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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