Chad Greenway calls it a natural progression. He's no longer the young, hopeful first-round draft pick.
Greenway, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound linebacker who is already six years into his career, reached the NFC Championship Game once and now sees the rebuilding process in its wake.
Just two years ago, he was the youngest of the starting three linebackers. Now, after the Vikings decided not to re-sign Ben Leber in the 2010 version of free agency and have done the same with E.J. Henderson this year, Greenway is the old man of the linebacker corps and knows that some leadership responsibilities will come with that label.
"It's natural. I think it's the natural progression," he said after a workout earlier this month. "Obviously, I'm going into year seven now so, I mean, I've sort of been doing that for a few years. I've taken a leadership role more and more as the years have gone on."
Greenway was a first-round draft pick in 2006, but tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason while playing on special teams. He didn't play until the 2007 season, but that started a string of four straight years that the Vikings entered the season with the same three starting linebackers – Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson and Greenway. Leber wasn't brought back after his contract expired following the 2010 season. This year, Henderson appears to be facing that same fate, although Greenway isn't writing him off yet.
"We're still holding out hope. Hopefully he gets to come back," Greenway said. "But obviously we know it's business and that's the aspect of it that's not necessarily fun when you've played with a guy for six years and he's been one of your best friends and best teammates. It's tough. So understandably we've had a lot of turnover in our room the last few years, from Heath (Farwell) to Ben and E.J. It's just an aspect of the NFL that's not very fun. But unfortunately it's just part of it."
E.J.'s younger brother Erin took over for Leber last year, and this year Jasper Brinkley is expected to compete with free-agent signee Marvin Mitchell for E.J.'s former post as the starting middle linebacker. Brinkley started the final four games of the 2009 regular season and both playoff games after E.J. suffered a fracture femur in December, but it was Brinkley who spent the entire 2011 season on injured reserve with a suffering a preseason hip injury.
"He's an extremely gifted athlete. For 255 or whatever he's weighing these days, he can run, he can move," Greenway said of Brinkley. "We think a lot of him in our room and we hope he takes full advantage of the opportunity that most likely is going to be given.
"I think he's happy with where he's at (recovering from the injury) and that's the most important thing. He feels really comfortable. And he's been in the room with our coaches and understanding what's going to be asked of him at that position. And he's obviously played that position before so he knows. It's just when you take a year off, it's going to take a little while to get back into it. You just keep moving around, you know a lot more.
Brinkley said he is "back totally, 100 percent."
"Ready to go. Any drill that Coach may think of, I can do it. I can do it to the best ability of anybody. If Chad can do it, I can do it."
As far as starting experience goes, it doesn't matter much if Brinkley or Mitchell wins the starting middle linebacker spot. Brinkley has four regular-season starts to his credit; Mitchell has two.
Combined with Erin Henderson entering his second season as a starter and being on just a one-year contract, about the only certainty among the Vikings' linebackers into the future is that Greenway will be there in the coming years. He signed a five-year, $41 million contract extension last September, less than one year after being recognized by his teammates as the team's defensive MVP following a 149-tackle season in 2010.
Last year, Greenway extended his streak of leading the defense in tackles to four years after a 174-tackle season that earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
Greenway now has 79 regular-season starts. The rest of the Vikings linebacker corps has 15 starts for the Vikings, 17 overall counting Mitchell's two starts for New Orleans in 2009. Although Greenway has a more outgoing personality than E.J., he says he prefers to let his actions do the talking when it comes to leadership.
"Just continue to lead by example and give the young guys something to look at and say that's how I want to do things," Greenway said. "Same thing those guys did for me when I was young. Hopefully they catch on and we get rolling."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Greenway taking on leadership among young LBs
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