The Minnesota Vikings need a new man in the middle of their defense.
Jasper Brinkley has inherited the job, as long as he can stay healthy. Doing his homework, though, might be the most important part.
Brinkley missed all of 2012 after surgery on the hip he injured during the preseason, but the Vikings believed enough in the ability of their fifth-round draft pick from 2009 to let free agent E.J. Henderson, their starter at middle linebacker for most of the last decade, go unsigned. Henderson is still available in case Brinkley gets hurt or stumbles badly.
The 27-year-old is learning as much as he can about playing this critical position to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I just have to continue to be a pro, man. Go in and study. Pick up on little keys, things somebody else might not see,” Brinkley said. “Definitely got to go into the film room and devote more time to studying. I’m not married, so I have time.”
He’ll usually split his video training between the team facility and the comfort of home, or in the case of training camp, his dorm room.
“Now with the new technology, you can load it up on your iPad and take it home. But the more film you watch, the better you’re going to be,” Brinkley said, mentioning greats like Ray Lewis and Brett Favre for the time they spent studying.
The other the technology Brinkley would like to familiarize himself with is a radio transmitter inside his helmet. Just like quarterbacks wear them to communicate with coaches before the snap, one defensive player on each team is designated to have the “live” helmet for the same types of conversations with the sideline between plays. Whoever is picked to be the middle linebacker in the nickel defense, primarily used on third downs, will wear the transmitter. Head coach Leslie Frazier said the Vikings will decide between Brinkley and starting outside linebacker Erin Henderson for that role, when they bring in an extra defensive back.
Brinkley was asked if he’s a two-down or three-down player.
“Three down. Four if need be,” he said. “I’m the only person in the way of myself. Erin’s a great player also. So I just play hard, however it goes.”
Chad Greenway, the other starting outside linebacker, offered a strong early review of Brinkley’s performance in camp.
“He’s got so much ability, and his head’s in the right place and he wants it,” Greenway said. “We’re hoping that everything stays healthy, and he has a great camp. I think when he gets to where he’s going people are going to be pretty impressed with what he’s got.”
Brinkley started four games his rookie year, when Henderson broke his leg, but he’s played sparingly since. After recovering from the hip surgery, he was slowed by a groin injury during spring practices and minicamp. But he’s been at full strength so far.
“Hasn’t had to be in the training room for any reason,” Frazier said.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams praised Brinkley for his slimmer frame, and faster body.
“I heard one of the guys yesterday joking saying, ‘Hey, you look like your rookie season,’” Williams said.
Getting hurt is part of football, but Brinkley has endured more than most. As a junior at South Carolina, he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“When you have something taken away like this, it kind of feels like the end of the world,” Brinkley said. “But with a great training staff, they were able to get me back at the right time. It all timed up at the perfect time actually.”
Just in time to become an NFL starter at perhaps the most mentally challenging position on the defense.
“I don’t think the average person could do it. It comes with a lot of responsibilities, just like being a quarterback,” Brinkley said, adding: “You may have to sacrifice some going out time, because you know this is our job. You’ve got to be a pro.”
Backup OT Patrick Brown hurt the MCL in his knee and didn’t participate in practice Thursday, and rookie FS Robert Blanton has joined the injured list with a hamstring strain. The team didn’t specify which side the injuries were on.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer offered a remarkably, at least for the NFL, candid recap of the way rookie Blair Walsh took the job from stalwart Ryan Longwell. Priefer said he made the recommendation to Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman that the team release Longwell, believing Walsh would be a better option. “Rick and Leslie, we were all on the same page,” Priefer said. “It was a tough deal, because he’s been a great kicker in this league for a long time. I just thought for the future of this team, kickoff-wise and even field goal-wise, it was the best move.”