The Minnesota Vikings are looking forward to the 2013 season and have good reasons to be optimistic. But without improvements at the middle linebacker position, they could just as easily find themselves mired in mediocrity as teams become comfortable attacking the middle.
The good news is that the Vikings are poised for an upgrade with the departure of Jasper Brinkley, one of Pro Football Focus’ worst-graded linebackers (subscription required).
The middle linebacker in any defense is important, but is particularly important in the Vikings’ Tampa 2 system, where the linebacker doesn't just run the defense and call the plays but also plays deep like a safety or plug up the line.
Tampa 2 linebackers don’t necessarily need to be athletic freaks, but they do need to find a way to hit the line of scrimmage at the same time as the running back or drop deep to the landmark 15-22 yards back.
Matt Miller evaluates middle linebacker prospects through several filters, although the Vikings have a few more requirements to add. Before anything else, Miller argues that instincts are the primary tool middle linebackers use to make plays and lead defenses.
This makes sense—getting to where you need to be demands that you know where you need to be as a prerequisite. Without basic recognition, even the fastest linebacker will be left hanging.
Naturally, physical talent in moving sideline-to-sideline is incredibly important for a middle linebacker. Aside from manning a relatively large zone, the MLB is on-point to chase down a run from any side of the field. It’s not as important for 4-3 MLBs as it is 3-4 ILBs, but it’s still a critical skill for every aspect of the defense.
With a weakness already at nose tackle, the Vikings will find themselves vulnerable up the middle—a vulnerability that opponents will be sure to exploit come the 2013 season.
They have five potential replacements at middle linebacker: Erin Henderson (slotted to take first-team snaps in minicamp at middle linebacker), newly acquired veteran free agent Desmond Bishop, rookie Michael Mauti, seventh-round draft 2012 pick Audie Cole and 27-year-old Tyrone McKenzie.
Erin Henderson is the biggest question at middle linebacker, as the unique responsibilities of the Tampa-2 linebacker are somewhat particular and fairly difficult.
As a run defender, Henderson is more than adequate. His total tackle numbers don’t impress many people, but they also don’t tell the whole story.
The most important thing to remember about defensive statistics is that they are not considered “official” by the NFL and are therefore not subject to scrutiny.
The biggest problem with that is that tackle statistics—what’s considered a “tackle” and what isn't—vary widely from stadium to stadium.
Because of that, best numbers come from third parties, who use a consistent method and train their staff in that method. Here, Pro Football Focus' premium statistics package will work as well as anything or anyone else, and they list Erin Henderson as having 64 solo tackles and 10 assists, for a total of 69 (if you count assists as half a tackle).
When dividing by the number of snaps he played, he tackled ball-carriers on 9.8 percent of plays, which is the 13th-best mark in the league and three ranks better than the more heralded Chad Greenway.
With all of those tackles are only three missed tackles, good for the fifth-lowest percentage of missed tackles per snap and the second-lowest number of missed tackles per tackle attempt. Out of weak-side linebackers, he ranked second in missed tackles per snap and first in missed tackles per tackle attempt.
Henderson knows how to tackle with excellent technique and amazing consistency. Not only does he have the awareness—every single time—to consistently wrap up his hits, he rolls his hips forward while driving down with his shoulders. And he keeps his head up.
He’s a powerful and underrated hitter, and combining that power with technical expertise is rare. Henderson also has uncommonly strong hands and maintains his grip on elusive ball-carriers who gave him only a jersey to grasp at.
His natural ability to weave through the muck and get to the ball-carrier is the reason why a good portion of his tackles aren’t “bad” tackles—ones that come too late (after the down marker or after the catch), like many other linebackers with gaudy tackle statistics.
A decent analog for figuring out whether or not he gets to the ball-carrier in time to make the play (and therefore, correctly suss out the flow of the play and make the right reads) is determining on what percentage of plays he’s in position to make a stop—a measure I've called TOPS.
That means adding up all tackles, assisted tackles and missed tackles in running plays, and dividing it by the number of snaps that Henderson had on running downs. In 2011, Henderson ranked fourth out of all 4-3 OLBs in percentage of run snaps where he was in position to make a play, at 20.60 percent.
In 2012, he lost his way a bit and ranked 21st, which is just above average.
The key question is which Erin Henderson the fans can expect to see. When adding up the two seasons for every 4-3 outside linebacker who took significant snaps for the same team in both years, Henderson comes out fourth overall, implying that he is much better than average—the more stable number is the career total.
In order to figure out whether or not Henderson's tackles are meaningful (the "good" and "bad" tackles mentioned above), it's useful to figure out how often his tackles create an impact.
Pro Football Focus’ “Run Stop Percentage” is a measure that assigns a percentage to all tackles that they classify as “stops” or plays that would constitute a “loss” for the offense (that would include tackles for loss or runs for minimal gain) and might be the best way to parse out the good from the bad.
In that measure, Henderson ranked fifth in the league, with a run stop percentage of 9.8 percent. By comparison, Greenway ranked ninth at 8.7 percent.
Given all that, it should be fairly well-established that Erin Henderson is a good run support linebacker, who, once again, exceeded his limited time on the field who outperformed the majority of the NFL at the position.
But as a middle linebacker, Henderson will be asked to do more, including taking on lead blockers.
What’s interesting about his skill set, however, is that Henderson does a very good job taking on blockers, despite his job often requiring that he avoid them. His take-on skills are impressive, and it shouldn't be a concern for him.
Generally speaking, Henderson gets to the ball and makes plays in the run game. This data also fits what the film says about his game, so his ability to plug gaps and stop the run has been fairly consistently good.
The more serious questions regarding Henderson is his ability to play against the pass. Graded out as one of the poorest cover linebackers by Pro Football Focus, it would seem that heavier duties as a coverage player would suit him poorly.
The Vikings linebacker group seems to be universally bad at coverage. Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway both allowed the eighth-most yards per snap in coverage out of all 4-3 linebackers at 1.20. Henderson allowed the 11th-most receptions per snap in coverage while Greenway allowed the 16th-most.
Jasper Brinkley wasn't much better. By virtue of the routes he was asked to cover, he only placed 14th of all inside and middle linebackers (48 qualified) in yards allowed per snap in coverage, but was targeted more than all but eight middle linebackers—7.2 times per snap in coverage.
While Brinkley was definitively the worse coverage player, his assignments were easier. While Henderson was busy allowing long gains to players like Greg Jennings and Reggie Wayne, Brinkley instead had to deal with tight ends like Matt Spaeth and Zach Miller.
Paradoxically, that might mean that Henderson would fare better in the "Mike" position than as a "Will," despite the deeper coverage responsibility. The Mike zone is smaller laterally and provides some lead time.
Further, Mike reads on the QB in zone coverage are easier not just because of lead time, but because they have a better view of the leading shoulder and eyes.
More likely, however, Henderson’s capability is best predicted by his previous play in coverage, not with optimistic projections that could be just as true of anybody.
Henderson only allowed one touchdown (a 30-yard Reggie Wayne catch), but overall, allowed a passer rating of 95.2. Greenway allowed a passer rating of 101.6, and Brinkley allowed a passer rating of 113.6. The overall passer rating allowed by 4-3 outside linebackers was 98.7.
Compelling statistics aside, it’s difficult to believe Henderson was an above-average linebacker in coverage. In fact, the tape should say he isn't—he’s as slow as the other linebackers reacting to pass plays and gives up too many intermediate passes.
Henderson’s average yardage allowed and yards per reception is skewed by the fact that he benefits from playing as a two-down linebacker, when the deeper passes won’t generally get thrown. In obvious passing situations, Henderson was on the bench, meaning long-distance passing was significantly less likely to happen.
That wasn't true at the beginning or the end of the season, which is a testament to how little faith the Vikings had in Jasper Brinkley in nickel packages after finally seeing him on the field, but the argument still stands that he allows many receptions, even for fewer yards.
At any rate, his run instincts don’t match his pass instincts, and this is compounded by his fluidity problems when moving laterally or back. He plays well downhill, but seems somewhat limited when the play demands he get out of the box.
The saving grace for Henderson is that he was much better in coverage—from both a film and statistics perspective—when he played in 2011. Not only was he Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and their free-agency hidden gem, here's what they had to say:
His brother has always been at his best coming forward, and was at his worst on his deepest drops when he had to run with receivers down the middle of the field, but Erin looked well capable of it. Against Carolina in Week 8 he did exactly that, breaking up a deep pass to WR Legadu Naanee in the end zone that would have been a touchdown.
He had his back to the football but was able to read the hands of Naanee as he reacted to the ball coming in and break up the pass. That is the kind of play you usually only see from linebackers with a certain level of experience and veteran savvy, but Erin Henderson made it in his first season starting, and one of his first games with any time at all as middle linebacker.
The numbers back up those tales from the tape. He ranked inside the Top 10 (sixth) in terms of yards given up per coverage snap, ranked 12th in number of coverage snaps per reception allowed, and was one of only a few linebackers with significant playing time not to allow a single touchdown on the season.
The Vikings were just a bit better in pass defense than average last year, allowing 6.0 net yards per attempt, but lost ground because they couldn't generate turnovers, ranking 25th in passer rating allowed. With one of their best defensive players gone in Antoine Winfield, shifting an important pass-protection duty from a terrible player (Jasper Brinkley) to a suspect player should create apprehension.
More than anything else, Henderson didn't look comfortable in coverage. In a league defined more and more by passing every year, this could be a bigger liability than it was even five years ago.
These concerns aren't shrouded to the Vikings, who had committed earlier in the season to either address the middle linebacker position through free agency or the draft, according to Scout.com (subscription required).
Spielman followed through by grabbing Desmond Bishop at a bargain, likely because of a hamstring injury that took him out of the 2012 season.
After extensive film study on Desmond Bishop from his 2011 season, there are clear positives and negatives that have been confirmed by data provided by Pro Football Focus.
A tackle map of Bishop’s run stops provides a good evaluative tool, for example, on how many of Bishop’s tackles are useful and how many are tackles where the ball-carrier had already gone for good yardage.
In the diagram below, the Xs are successful stops, the Os are missed tackles or plays where he was unreasonably pushed off by a blocker (when he should have stacked the blocker to clog the lane or free up another player) and the triangles are tackles Bishop made, but after the ball-carrier did what he needed to do.
The triangles don’t represent a failure on Bishop’s part—most of them are tackles where he cleaned up mistakes by others on the defense—but they are also not tackles that show he is a good run-stopper.
This tackle map coincides with what Pro Football Focus has to say about Bishop’s tackle total: His tackles are legitimate. Unlike a linebacker who only tackles deep or after the play is made, Bishop often gets to the ball-carrier quickly and has a nose for the ball, making a big impact on running plays.
His proclivity for getting to the running back is further expressed in the TOPS stat, where he ranks above every other inside linebacker in the league and by quite some margin.
The trade-off, unfortunately, is that Bishop is often too aggressive against the run and gets sucked into play-action passes. He doesn't have the recovery speed to get back into his zone or maintain closing distance on tight ends or running backs, which makes him a liability in coverage.
Worse, he’s already lacking in coverage ability. Like many linebackers, he’s one-dimensional in his ability. While he certainly has the ability to be the best run-stuffing linebacker in the league, he also has a long way to go before opponents fear throwing at him.
Even though he has good range and motion in zone coverage, he’s sometimes late getting to his depth markers, doesn't drop back quickly enough and leaves room for separation against tight ends with even average speed.
He has the savvy to beat most receivers out of the backfield at the stem, but he cannot consistently turn this into reasonable pass defense.
Without ball skills, an intuition for reading receivers or quarterbacks or the speed and discipline to consistently hit depth on his drops, he’ll be a liability in coverage for some time—a recognized weakness in pass defense metrics.
Aside from having one career interception (against the Vikings, no less), he’s recorded only 10 pass breakups. Data from PFF confirms this—placing him as the third-worst linebacker in yards per snap allowed in coverage in 2011 and similarly poorly in other pass coverage statistics throughout his career.
While Henderson has at least had one good year in coverage, Bishop hasn't had any. The former Packer does look to do well in short zones and has a good instinct for when to allow shorter passes instead of playing the ball to aggressively, but shouldn't be relied on to cover the seam or deep zone.
Alternately, the Vikings could place their faith in seventh-round draft pick Michael Mauti—which isn't as crazy as it initially sounds. While Mauti played as a strong-side linebacker for most of his college career at Penn State, he was touted as a potential first-round pick had he not been injured.
The problem with Mauti is that he enters the offseason still injured—tearing an ACL in his right knee in 2009 and his left ACL in both 2011 and 2012. While his recovery seems to be proceeding apace, it doesn't mean he will be game-ready.
This is particularly true given the number of offseason reps he’ll be missing. Not just vital for the install, but also for developing on-field chemistry with the other players.
That didn't stop Jamarca Sanford from wrestling the starting safety spot from Mistral Raymond after Raymond’s injury, but it does make it difficult to see a defense performing well with a player who missed most of the introduction to the defense and lacks valuable on-field work in a new defense.
Should Mauti return successfully from his injury, the Vikings are in for a steal.
Mauti entered the 2012 college football season highly recommended as one of the most instinctive, hard-hitting and mobile linebackers in college football. Most of his 2012 played out exactly like that, playing on the strong side of Penn State’s 4-3 system, where he was a run-stuffing maven.
Not only did he possess the instincts and capability to defend the run while rarely missing a tackle, he had a good head for the passing game and the athleticism to match, having been hard to beat by tight ends or running backs.
Mauti had some issues taking on blockers when up against top-tier schools, but was otherwise a complete linebacker. He had great anticipation in all phases of the game and figures to do better in the middle linebacker spot than the "Sam" linebacker spot he played in Happy Valley.
He can drop deep quickly, reads the quarterback’s eyes and attacks the ball in the air. In addition to that, he does a good job recognizing routes and playing off releasing receivers, regardless of their route. He’s better in zone coverage as he’ll initially leave space in man coverage, but that should be fine for the Vikings.
His absurd pass-coverage numbers are better than many linebackers currently in the NFL, and if he can return to form, he'll be superb.
Mauti likely won’t be ready to contribute on a meaningful level for some time, so he doesn't necessary settle the need at middle linebacker position. Even when he does get back, there will be serious concerns about his durability and return to fitness after a third knee injury. Aside from those knees, he’s also suffered injuries in a shoulder and an ankle.
The former Nittany Lion has strong leadership skills and a hardy work ethic that should endear him to teammates, but sometimes, heart and will can’t make up for a body that doesn't match.
The preseason phenom, Audie Cole, has grabbed the attention of fans hoping to see an unlikely savior at one of the weakest positions on the Vikings corp.
Unfortunately, picking off a fourth-string quarterback/receiver twice in the preseason doesn't necessarily translate into good, or even solid play in the regular season against NFL starters.
The fact that Cole sat at third on the depth chart for what was arguably the weakest position on the roster is probably a better indicator of who he is.
Cole needs to improve his coverage, and that’s likely what prompted the offseason workouts that saw him lose 10-15 pounds. Gaining speed and flexibility should help him shore up his coverage, one of his biggest knocks coming out of college.
A downhill athlete, Cole spend his first years at NC State as a strong-side linebacker. He’s tough against running backs, fullbacks, tight ends and offensive linemen, and he knows how to deliver a hit. He’s instinctive, but he didn't show an ability to read plays as quickly as the other linebackers higher up on the depth chart at last season’s training camp.
Agility may have been his biggest problem, though, as he generally showed an ability to play with smarts in zone coverage. He has good sideline-to-sideline movement, but stiff hips make it hard for him to win tackles that aren't immediately in front of him.
A solid tackler otherwise, Cole shows an ability to hit both with technique and power. The worry is that if a play gets away from him, he doesn't have the ability to recover and could leave the defense exposed. As it stands—without extraordinary improvements at a variety of skills—he won't be the answer at middle linebacker.
That doesn't mean he won't have a spot on the roster. Before signing Desmond Bishop, the Vikings had Cole take second-team snaps at middle linebacker, a spot he’ll likely maintain given the type of competition that Bishop and incumbent Henderson are having.
The Vikings will start one linebacker at middle linebacker and move the other to the weak side, which was Henderson’s old position (and similar to Bishop’s role in Green Bay). That means Cole will retain his second-string spot, and Marvin Mitchell would move down the depth chart.
Given that Cole feels he has the most difficult part of being a linebacker down—the mental part—improving his physical capability could mean he’s a great asset on the team and a good developmental prospect at the same time.
Behind Audie Cole on the depth chart in 2012 was Tyrone McKenzie, a special teams standout who led the team in special teams tackles.
While McKenzie took snaps with the second team at the Will position, McKenzie is clearly a jack-of-all-trades-type linebacker, who isn't an expert at one position, but adequate at many.
He sold himself to NFL teams on his instinctive play and ability to sift through traffic at the college level, but he’s made an impression among NFL personnel for his ability to take on lead blockers and offense linemen to free up other players.
McKenzie was originally drafted in the third round, but never reached that potential—in some part due to injury his rookie year.
Like many of the other linebackers on the roster, McKenzie is more of a run-support linebacker than a pass defender and might be better suited to the outside than the inside, given the fact that his lateral range exceeds his vertical range. That is, he’s more of a sideline player than a player who can defend deep.
That said, McKenzie is still young enough to develop into reasonable depth (27 years of age) and could even see a late surge in his career that shows one or two good seasons. He’s proven that he can learn multiple types of defenses and improve in coverage.
He won’t start for the Vikings, but neither is he guaranteed to be cut.
Stats courtesy of JPStats and Pro Football Focus, unless noted otherwise.