Around the League will examine one key figure under pressure on each team heading into the 2012 season. Next up: The Minnesota Vikings
Under Pressure: Jasper Brinkley
With just two seasons remaining on his contract, no one in the Minnesota Vikings organization is under more pressure than head coach Leslie Frazier, who boasts a 6-16 record and has the misfortune of working in the insanely competitive NFC North. Looking beyond the man in the headset, though, a player under considerable pressure heading into the season is middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.
Brinkley is slated to replace E.J. Henderson, the team's starting middle linebacker for the past eight seasons, who went to the Pro Bowl as recently as 2010. Henderson, who'll turn 32 in early August, remains a free agent, but for now, the team appears content to roll with Brinkley in the middle.
Brinkley, a 2009 fifth-round pick out of South Carolina, has started only four games in his career, and those came only when Henderson was injured late in the 2009 season. Over that four-game stretch, Brinkley posted 20 tackles and one forced fumble. He followed that up with nine tackles in the Vikings' two playoff games that season.
Outside of that, however, Brinkley's contributions at the NFL level have come primarily on special teams. Brinkley picked up 14 of his 17 total tackles in 2010 as a core member of the Vikings' special teams units. He missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing hip surgery last August and is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
"I'm definitely equipped," Brinkley told ESPN Twin Cities earlier this week of playing middle linebacker. "That's what they brought me in here for. Ultimately they're giving me that opportunity. I've got the job, but it's my job to keep it."
Playing six divisional games against quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler would be a test for any young middle linebacker, particularly one who acknowledges that his pass coverage needs some work.
"You go into the offseason always knowing you want to work on the thing that you want to get better at," Brinkley said. "For me, that's dropping into my zone and getting better at the zone, because we are a Tampa-2 team. So you have to be able to run down the middle of the field as a middle linebacker. That's one of the things I did clean up this offseason. I'm ready to put it all on the field and put it on tape."