Poll Of The Week

POLL OF THE WEEK: Mystery at Middle Linebacker

Heading into the offseason, one of my biggest concerns surrounding the Vikings was the depth at linebacker. Anthony Barr missed the final four games of the year after undergoing surgery to repair a slightly torn meniscus, and veteran linebacker Chad Greenway wrapped up his worst statistical season since entering the league in 2007.  And at middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley finished the year with 54 tackles, but left a gaping hole in the defense after signing a free agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys.

As Brent pointed out last week, though, this roster is loaded with young talent at the position, from freak athletes like Anthony Barr to late-round picks like Audie Cole. General manager Rick Spielman isn’t just drafting college’s best linebackers (see Eric Kendricks), he’s letting the coaching staff develop a few lesser-known players.

Seventh-round pick Edmond Robinson has the size and raw tools to contribute for the Vikings in the future, but will have time to grow as he sits behind Brandon Watts, Josh Kaddu, and Brian Peters. In Sunday’s game, both Watts and Peters played well against Pittsburgh’s backups, with Peters flashing his open field skills on a fumble recovery in the third quarter.

If anything, the biggest gap remains in the middle of Mike Zimmer’s unit. The players mentioned above are going to shine during the preseason, as it’s their best chance to step foot on the field and show the coaches what — special teams depth, a practice squad spot — they can bring to the team. But three in particular appear to be fighting for a chance to man the middle of the defense: Audie Cole, Eric Kendricks, and Gerald Hodges.

Earlier today, head coach Mike Zimmer spoke to the media before practice and touched on each player’s performance from Sunday night. He also shared some insight on the team’s plan for the position moving forward, commenting specifically on the situational use of certain players throughout the year:

[quote_center]”We are going to try to use each player to their strength the best we can and however we have to do it and we might have to substitute some guys in there for certain situations.”[/quote_center]

Audie Cole

[quote_box_center]”Audie did a good job the other night. There is something to be said about having tall linebackers. He tipped that one ball that ended up getting caught, but when the guys are 6’4”, you have him and [Anthony] Barr in there, you have two big linebackers. It’s harder to throw in the seams. The big guys who can run have a little bit more punch to them than the little guys who can run.”[/quote_box_center]

Audie Cole had an impressive outing on Sunday night while starting at middle linebacker during the Vikings’ first preseason game. In the first half alone, he recorded three tackles and forced a fumble on an aggressive hit, leading to a 32-yard Antone Exum scoop-and-return into Steelers territory.

As Zimmer mentioned this morning, one of Cole’s greatest strengths is his size. At 6’4″, 246 pounds, he has the frame to survive against the run and the length to defend the middle of the field. This was on full display last Sunday, when Cole tipped a pass over the middle that most linebackers would’ve missed — he has a knack for the football and the ability to disrupt passing lanes.

Cole has long been a reserve, but when given the chance, has taken full advantage of his opportunities. Against the Chicago Bears in Week 17 last year, Cole started at middle linebacker and was a force for the Vikings, recording 11 tackles while flying all over the field. He’s been a star during the preseason and in spot duty action, but finally has a chance to solidify his role in Minnesota.

Eric Kendricks

Zimmer, when asked what he’d like to see from rookie Eric Kendricks before the season starts:

[quote_box_center]”To be a little bit more patient. He wants to go get there so fast that sometimes he overruns things. He can be a little bit more patient. He needs to just settle down and do what he can do. That’s really it, just settling down and feeling more comfortable I think.”[/quote_box_center]

Kendricks played 29 snaps on Sunday, filling in as the team’s second-string middle linebacker behind Cole. The rookie out of UCLA entered the league as one of college’s best linebackers, known for his “plus instincts against the run and pass,” per NFL.com. Those instincts were on display against the Steelers, as Kendricks was routinely around the football in limited playing time.

But Kendricks still lags behind Cole, thanks to his relative inexperience and adjustment to the speed of the NFL. He’s well-developed for a player at this point of his career, but still suffers from rookie mistakes, like getting sucked up in the run game and playing impatiently at times. With more experience in live situations and four preseason games to sharpen his game, those problems will alleviate themselves, and Kendricks could challenge Cole for the start come Week 1. If not, he’d make for an intriguing option in the Nickel formation lined up next to his Bruin Brother, Anthony Barr.

Gerald Hodges

Per ESPN’s Ben Goessling last week, Zimmer has been happy with Hodges this offseason:

[quote_box_center]”Gerald has done a very nice job of doing the things that I’m asking him to do,” Zimmer said. “I am hopeful that he will continue to do those things. If he does, then Gerald has a chance to be a very quality NFL football player. He’s big, strong, fast. He’s intelligent. If he can continue on the right path, then he has an opportunity.”[/quote_box_center]

I’ve made my man-crush for Hodges clear over the past few months, and I was thrilled when Mike Zimmer announced the former Penn State linebacker would see some time at middle linebacker. Last year, he notched 50 tackles, half a sack, and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 14, all while filling in for injured starters Barr and Greenway at different times throughout the season.

Hodges described middle linebacker as his “type of game,” specifically pointing out that he enjoys to “come down and shed the blocker” in the running game. On Sunday, he finished the Hall of Fame Game with three tackles and was all over the field in his 19 snaps on defense. Hodges is likely behind both Cole and Kendricks in the battle for middle linebacker, but could see time in the Nickel or as Chad Greenway’s eventual replacement at some point during the season His talents are hard to ignore, and coaches always find ways to get their best players on the field.

Who will start at middle linebacker in Week One?

Each of the aforementioned players has a shot to start for the Vikings, but there’s plenty of time left for Mike Zimmer to make a final decision. Cole, Kendricks, and Hodges bring unique skills to the team, and Zimmer may find that a rotation benefits his defense the most come the regular season. Is there a fit for all three downs, or will Zimmer employ a number of different lineups throughout the year?

 

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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9 Comments

  1. considering that hodges and cole both played well when replacing greenway and barr when injured; hodges, cole and kendricks (the latter with a bit of time) could be a formidable starting three if barr was out. just love chad and everything he stands for, but stats don’t lie

  2. I think Cole will start week 1,with Barr & Hodges.I share your enthusiasm Austin and am all aboard the Hodges train.I think he understands what he needs to do in order to be a starter in this league,and he has the desire to go get it.
    Kendricks will get his share of snaps and Greenway will become more of a backup.It will be interesting to see how it all fits together as Zim now has more of his type of guys to fit what he wants to do.

  3. Last year, he notched 50 tackles, half a sack, and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 14 while filling in for injured starters Barr and Greenway.

    It’s AMAZING he could have a game like that and still not have the starting position sewn up !

  4. One of the problems with keeping Greenway around is the opportunity cost. It’s great that we’re trying to develop these promising kids like Robinson, Watts, Peters, and Kaddu; who have all shown some things at different times this off-season. But we won’t be able to keep them all on the PS, much less the 53-man roster, if we keep Greenway around.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy. He’s been a helluva player for us, and seems like a helluva guy, but with the youth that we’ve got across the roster, this is a team being built for the next 10 years and it’s time to move on. Maybe they could bring him on as a coach.

  5. Size matters? I don’t know if 232 lbs is enough, yes it’s a passing league but the nfl is good at exploiting weaknesses. I know we like his range, smarts and coachability but will teams choose to run at Kendricks? Can Floyd and Joseph absorb the push to free up our guy to make plays, will his tackles yield precious yards after contact? I do like Audie in the middle( sounds like a TV show) Barr, Hendricks and Hodges on the flanks. Just speculating, but could Kendricks be a super switcher safety ala Thomas Davis allowing emerging Hodges to be on the field too?

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