Few positions are as important to a defense as the position of middle linebacker. With the new NFL rule allowing a defender to wear a helmet to receive play calls from the sideline, most teams are going to make middle linebacker that player. The Vikings have their starting spot locked down at MLB with one of the better players in the NFC, but beyond that, there are still questions that need to be answered.
E.J. Henderson has developed into one of the game's better middle linebackers after spending the early part of his career bouncing back and forth from inside to outside linebacker. Once Brad Childress and then-defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin came on board, the decision was made to put Henderson inside and keep him there. The result has been nothing less than spectacular. Henderson, who came to the NFL with a chip on his shoulder after falling out of the first round of the draft and into the laps of the Vikings in the second round of the 2003 draft, has become a fixture on the defense. No longer saddled with the tag of being too small to be an effective MLB in the NFL, Henderson is secure in his position. In 2007, he had a team-leading 155 tackles (25 more than anyone else), 4.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hurries.
The question now becomes this: Who is going to be his backup?
For the last couple of seasons, there was little in the way of debate over that question. Dontarrious Thomas was that guy. But Thomas, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, signed with San Francisco. That has created an opening that the Vikings must address during the OTA, minicamp and training camp periods.
The top two candidates for the backup position are Derrick Pope and J. Leman. Pope is entering his fifth season and, ironically, will be playing for his fifth head coach in as many years after spending his first four seasons with Miami. He replaced Zach Thomas at MLB with the Dolphins when Thomas went down with injury and accounted pretty well for himself. Leman started the last two seasons at middle linebacker at Illinois and, despite some physical limitations that made him an undrafted free agent, has the experience to compete for a roster spot.
Much in the same way the Vikings are set at the starting spots at defensive tackle but need to find a replacement to fill the role previously held by Spencer Johnson, the team is in much the same boat at middle linebacker. Henderson has locked down the starting spot and, if healthy, won't need a backup because he can be an every-down linebacker in the Tampa-2 defense. But, with injury always a concern, finding a backup for 2008 and beyond will be one of the training camp priorities for the Vikings.
The skill and versatility Thomas brought to the table will be missed, but the Vikings are convinced they can find his replacement in Pope or Leman, or maybe both. While there may not be room on the final roster for both of them, their competition will be something to watch during training camp as each vies to be the man behind Henderson in the MLB pecking order.
A look at the linebacker's college statistics from the University of Illinois…