Last spring, linebacker Jasper Brinkley wanted to prove he was healthy and worthy of becoming the Vikings' full-time middle linebacker.
At the time, neither of those goals were looking very certain. Coming off of hip surgery, he began missing time at organized team activities for either hip or groin issues (there was conflicting information from him and head coach Leslie Frazier about which area was the issue). No matter the specifics on the injury, it threatened to erode confidence on whether he should be relied upon as the favorite option to start.
As it turned out, Brinkley played in all 16 games for the Vikings in 2012 and had a good season, according to defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
"He did a good job. The good thing is that he was available and that's the No. 1 thing. You want a guy that's available," Williams said. "You don't want your Corvette to be sitting in the garage and the wheels up. He's available, so that was a big thing that he could make it through 90 percent of the season and be available for us. And then when he had a chance to make his plays, he made the majority of them."
In his first season as s full-time starter, Brinkley finished third on the team with 114 tackles, adding four passes defensed, three forced fumbles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
But the bigger sense of accomplishment might not be in the quantifiable statistics but the contributions Brinkley made before the ball was snapped. That's where Williams saw the most improvement in his middle linebacker as the season progressed.
"I think running the defense. I think communicating to others," Williams said. "What people don't know is there are checks, there are coverage checks, they're getting in and out of plays, playing a chess match with the quarterbacks. He did a great job staying within the system but also getting us in the right plays, getting us in the right defensive coverage, fronts that we needed to be in to be successful."
Brinkley is scheduled to an unrestricted free agent when the market opens on March 12, one of 10 unrestricted free agents for the Vikings. That list also includes starters like offensive tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton, safety Jamarca Sanford and fellow linebacker Erin Henderson.
Having two of the three starting linebackers up for free agency will make the Vikings' decision particularly interesting. The draft isn't considered particularly strong at middle linebacker, which could influence the team's decisions with Brinkley.
"I always say, ‘Hey, let's look out there and see if you can find a guy that can run it, that's natural at it, and can also take care of his responsibility' because that's an added pressure on a guy to say, ‘You have to make the call, get everybody else lined, get yourself lined up, too, and then you have to play.' That takes a special guy," Williams said. "There are guys that are out there that are used to doing it in college, so you just have to wait and see if that guy is out there."
Williams said "the guys that make the big money," – general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier – will ultimately make the decisions on which pending free agents are re-signed and which ones are allowed to explore free agency.
"I think we would rather have our guys back and our guys that drink our Kool-Aid, that know how we do things, that know how we get lined up, how we practice," Williams said. "You want to set a culture that's a Minnesota Vikings culture and we'd like to do that. But the nature of the NFL is you just can't."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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