EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As he assessed the progress of rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti on Thursday morning, defensive coordinator Alan Williams hit on an interesting point about what the Minnesota Vikings -- and most other teams -- want to see from their middle linebackers. And while he brought it up in the context of what those players (particularly Mauti, who projects more in the middle than on the outside) need to learn, I thought it had an interesting application to their veterans, as well.
One of the Vikings' biggest, or at least most-discussed, defensive questions of the offseason was how they would handle the middle-linebacker position. That conversation began in February, with coach Leslie Frazier saying at the NFL scouting combine that the Vikings wanted "to potentially draft someone" who could play middle linebacker. It continued with rumors about their interest in ex-Bears (and now retired) linebacker Brian Urlacher. Erin Henderson said at offseason workouts in April that he had been told to prepare for a move from the outside to the middle, and reinforced his stance as the middle linebacker every time another player's name came up, whether it was Urlacher (again) or Desmond Bishop (whom the Vikings signed in June).
The Vikings appear set to go into the season with Henderson in the middle, and one of the things they're banking on is his ability to run the defense. He had some experience with the role last season, making calls in the Vikings' nickel defense, but he hasn't done it on a consistent three-down basis. Really, the Vikings haven't had a reliable solution in the middle since Henderson's older brother E.J. retired after the 2011 season. If Erin Henderson is to establish himself as the long-term answer at the position, Williams will be looking to see if he can be an extension of the coordinator's thinking.
"A good Mike linebacker can make a coordinator right. That is what we look for, that when I mess up, they make it right," Williams said. "If I send in a call that may not be what we had practiced, or what we want, or for that situation, they say, 'Coach has talked to me about this, I know that this is this certain call, and we may not want this call with this coverage.' And they can make you right. Or it could be a two-minute situation and they can make a call without me having to send one in because we have talked about, in this situation, what we actually want, in terms of coverage, front, and they can go ahead and make the call."
Williams said Henderson is at a point where he knows what the Vikings want, though the younger linebackers haven't reached that level yet. And with Bishop new to the defense, Chad Greenway entrenched on the strong side and few linebackers more familiar with the Vikings' defense than Henderson, the team is banking on him to be able to handle the job. Mauti might have been a second- or third-round pick if not for concerns about his three ACL surgeries, and could still turn into a prototypical middle linebacker; Williams called him a "natural linebacker" on Thursday, and if Mauti makes the team, he could give the Vikings another option if Bishop falters and Henderson eventually has to play outside.
But for now, the defense is Henderson's to run, and the Vikings are putting their faith in him to do the job.