Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The middle of the Minnesota Vikings’ defense is wide open.

Late Thursday night, ESPN reported that the Cowboys had come to terms with former Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley on a two-year deal.

Brinkley, who started 11 of 14 games for the Vikings in 2014, finished the season with 75 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble. He signed a $830,000, one-year deal with Minnesota after spending 2013 with the Cardinals.

A fifth-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Brinkley played his first 4 seasons with the Vikings and had recently expressed interest in returning to the team in 2015. As Chris Tomasson reported on Wednesday, Brinkley remained confident that he would assume his role as the Vikings’ starting middle linebacker next season:

“Free-agent linebacker Jasper Brinkley reiterated Wednesday he wants to return to the Vikings and said the door is still open.”

Clearly, the door has been slammed shut. The 30-year-old was, at best, a competent starter at middle linebacker — he was on the field for 460 snaps, accounting for just 42.5% of all the Vikings’ defensive plays. Carl put it best in his free agency preview when he called Brinkley a “stopgap run stuffer” and a two-down, rotational defender.

Moving forward, Mike Zimmer will need to focus on adding or developing an every-down, 4-3 middle linebacker.

Brinkley was never the organization’s long-term answer at the position, but has a chance to replace the troubled Rolando McClain in Dallas next season.

As for the Vikings, Rick Spielman will need to scour the free agent market for a cheap, if capable, replacement. Adam recently analyzed five players the team could target in free agency, and two of those were middle linebackers — Buffalo’s Brandon Spikes and Dallas’s Rolando McClain.

Spikes, like Brinkley, is a two-down player who struggles in the passing game. Long regarded as the league’s premier downhill run-stuffer, Spikes could step in on early downs and rotate with Audie Cole (or another player on the roster) in passing situations. Though he enjoyed a moderately successful 2014 season with the Bills, the 27-year-old Spikes could come at a relatively cheap price to Mike Zimmer’s defense. It’s hard to imagine the Vikings replacing Brinkley with another role player, but it’s even more difficult to decipher Spielman’s offseason strategy.

The other option, Rolando McClain, enjoyed a remarkable comeback season in 2014. After an early retirement from the league in 2013, McClain resurfaced with the Cowboys last season en route to an 81-tackle, two-interception performance. Unlike Spikes, McClain is an adept defender in both the passing and running game, and at 25 years old, doesn’t have Spikes’s injury history. Mike Zimmer has experience coaching troubled linebackers (see: Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati), and I suspect McClain would thrive under his tutelage. The chances are slim, however, as the Buccaneers signed former Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter to a new deal on Thursday — re-signing McClain, even with a four-game suspension, is a priority in Dallas.

Currently, Arif has Audie Cole projected as the Vikings’ starter in 2015. Last year, he replaced an injured Chad Greenway against the Bears in Week 17, recording 14 tackles and handling all of the defensive calls. It’s quite the conundrum, as Cole has been relatively productive in 6 career starts. If anything, Cole lacks the strength and athleticism to man the middle of a defense like Luke Kuechly or Navarro Bowman.

Heading into the draft and the final hours of free agency, adding a middle linebacker needs to be one of the Vikings’ highest priorities. What do you think Minnesota should do? Sign a veteran free agent, draft Brinkley’s replacement, or build the current roster talent?