In 2008, the Vikings suffered a huge hit to the heart of their defense when they lost middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to a dislocated toe injury in week four that put him on the I.R.
Thanks to a veteran leader, a young guy who always is around the ball, and a familiar face, the Vikings linebackers were able to pick up the slack and finish the season ranked number one against the rush.
Let me break down and analyze the 2009 Vikings linebackers that will again look to be the best at stopping the run while helping an improving pass defense that's on the rise.
OLB No. 52 Chad Greenway
Greenway, the Vikings first-round pick in the 2006 draft, has fit it very well with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's Tampa two scheme. After Greenway's rookie season was taken away after a knee injury in the first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, he fought back to become a key contributor on the defense.
With the loss of Henderson in 2008, Greenway led the way for the defense with 115 tackles on the season as well as finishing with the most tackles (10) in a wild card loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. He also added 5.5 sacks to his totals in 2008, showing he can get after the quarterback when the Vikings need him to.
In 2009, Greenway is the sure starter on the strong side this season and is definitely a player to watch in this league. This will only be his fourth season in the league and already he is making significant contributions to a defense on the rise.
MLB No. 56 E.J. Henderson
Henderson, who had a tremendous season in 2007, leading the team in tackles while many named him a Pro Bowl snub that should have ended up playing in Hawaii. Last season, Henderson was put on I.R. when he suffered a toe injury in week four at Tennessee.
This loss hurt the Vikings, especially against the run game where Henderson is at his best. In the four games he played in 2008, Henderson recorded 27 tackles along with a sack on Peyton Manning in week two.
Henderson will return to the middle of the Vikings defense in 2009 and will improve a Vikings defense that is already stout against the run. If he is feeling healthy and making the plays we are used to seeing him make, expect Henderson to get that Pro Bowl selection this season.
OLB No. 51 Ben Leber
In my opinion, Leber has been one of the most underrated signings by the Vikings in the past five years. The former San Diego Charger has brought excellent leadership skills and experience to a young Vikings linebacking core and will bring more of it in 2009.
Leber finished the 2008 season with 64 tackles and 1.5 sacks well being a key contributor to stopping the run. Although is sack total probably doesn't stand out to many in NFL nation, he was a good blitzer that consistently put pressure on the quarterback and forced some bad decisions.
Leber will be the starter on the weak side this season next to Greenway and Henderson that make up a teriffic starting core for the Vikings heading into the 2009 campaign.
MLB Jasper Brinkley
Brinkley, the Vikings fifth-round selection in this year's draft, looks to be a contributor on special teams this year while also providing depth in case injuries seem to haunt E.J. Henderson for a second consecutive season.
Brinkley, a second-team all-SEC linebacker last year, was probably taken off of some teams board before the draft due to some knee troubles earlier in his college career. He had knee surgery in 2007 but came back and was productive for the Gamecocks in '09.
Look for Brinkley to show what he can do on special teams while also getting plenty of reps at middle linebacker in the preseason. If he can stay healthy and show that his previous knee injury isn't a factor, he could be the successor to Henderson whenever his time is up in Minnesota.
MLB No. 59 Heath Farwell
Last year seemed to look promising for Farwell, who had been the team's leader on special teams coverage the past couple of seasons. But disaster struck in the first preseason game against Seattle where Farwell tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the year.
As long as Farwell's knee is medically taken care of, he should fit right back into his role as special teams ace for the Vikings. Also look for him to compete with rookie Jasper Brinkley to back up Henderson inside at linebacker.
MLB No. 58 David Herron
Herron played well for the most part when taking over on the inside when no other middle linebackers could go. In 2008, he finished with 14 tackles on the season, mostly producing on special teams with Farwell lost for the season.
This summer, Herron will battle both Brinkley and Farwell for the right to backup Henderson inside but I have a feeling he doesn't have the nose for the football that can get him the job. Look for Herron to make the squad due to his experience with the defensive scheme as well as on special teams.
MLB/OLB No. 50 Erin Henderson
Henderson, the younger brother of E.J., was passed on in the 2008 NFL Draft due to a knee injury he suffered during his college career at Maryland. He signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent and won a spot with his play on special teams.
Henderson was an effective player on kick coverages last year but needs to make more of an impact in training camp and the preseason for him to win a job. The advantage for Henderson is that he can also play outside where not as much competition is.
If he is versatile enough to understand and make plays on the outside, he could backup both Greenway and Leber in 2009.