After eight seasons as Minnesota's starting middle linebacker it's time for the E.J. Henderson era to end in Minnesota. Jasper Brinkley (above) should be the man in the middle come opening day.
It's time for a change.
For the previous eight seasons E.J. Henderson manned Minnesota's middle linebacker position. And he had plenty of success while doing it.
He had five seasons of 90 or more tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season. He overcame numerous injuries, including a fractured femur, and has been a standout run stopper.
But that was then. And this is now.
Henderson is a 31-year-old linebacker. He’s past his prime. He’s still strong against the run and very knowledgeable about Minnesota’s defense, but his skills against the pass have quickly regressed with injuries and age taking their toll.
It’s a well-known fact that at this time that Minnesota is in rebuilding mode. It’s a team that isn’t necessarily planning to win in 2012. The plan is to start winning by 2014, roughly. While bringing Henderson back at middle linebacker could help Minnesota win more games in 2012, that’s not the purpose of this season.
This season is dedicated to progressing Christian Ponder as a franchise quarterback and finding out what young talent can be used to build a winner in the near future.
This brings me to my point: It’s time to move on from Henderson (as a starter) and see what else Minnesota has in the cupboard at the position. It’s time for the franchise to see what Jasper Brinkley or another young player can do at that position.
Henderson is not a long-term solution at the position and will only delay the process.
Who should be Minnesota's opening day starting middle linebacker?
Brinkley is a 26-year old who, if he’s ever going to be a difference maker in the NFL, should be nearing the prime of his career. He missed last season with a hip injury and is fully recovered.
The former South Carolina linebacker graced the field in 2009 during his rookie season after Henderson fractured his femur. During that six-game stretch, Brinkley recorded 29 tackles in six starts (including two postseason contests).
Brinkley didn’t blow anyone away with his performance during that stretch, and the statistics back that notion up. But Brinkley was only a rookie at that time and still showed good instincts against the run, much like Henderson. He also struggled against the pass, much like Henderson does today.
Now Brinkley is three years wiser and should have a better grasp of what it takes to be a linebacker in the NFL.
Of course, Brinkley won’t have the defense under wraps the way Henderson does, nor will he have the chemistry with his teammates like Henderson does. But Brinkley fits in perfectly with Minnesota’s youth movement.
With a young player like Brinkley in the wings, ready to go, a team in rebuilding mode should start him. I would not be opposed to re-signing Henderson as insurance because Brinkley could prove inadequate as a middle linebacker, at which point it would be nice to have a sturdy backup like Henderson ready to go.
But if Minnesota re-signs Henderson with the intent to start him, it goes against Minnesota's movement.
This offseason the franchise made one financially significant free-agent acquisition: former Seattle tight end John Carlson. Minnesota gave him a five-year contract worth $25 million.
Beyond Carlson, the Vikings acquired low-cost, younger free agents. No player Minnesota signed was older than 29. The Vikings didn't make any moves strictly to win in 2012. The moves were made to win in the future or to serve as a temporary fill-in at a position where it was proven Minnesota had no one adequate to fill in at.
Middle linebacker had no free-agent acquisitions, but that’s because there is a player with potential that hasn’t had his time to shine yet. It’s time to unleash the Brinkley. Let him show the world what he can do.