Head to head: inside linebackers


As we hurtle towards training camp (Minnesota starts it’s festivities on July 24th, a little over a week from now), it’s worth looking more closely at some of the training camp battles.

We’ve gone a little broad at the linebacker position before, but this week we’re going to punch in on some specifics—mainly the inside linebackers.

These days a middle linebacker has to be more than the run-stuffing big boys of old. They’ve got to be able to defend the pass as well and pressure the quarterback.

The Vikings had issues in both areas last year and have to have someone step up this season.

The Players: Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti

Handicapping the Race:

Jasper Brinkley has the edge in terms of winning this job outright though at the end of the day we can expect a rotation at the position.

Still, someone will get the lions’ share of snaps and Brinkley is the most likely candidate. He’s got more experience than either of the other two and is the best run-stopper of the group. After spending a year in Arizona, where he was an awful fit, Brinkley has returned to Minnesota and the Vikings.

He finds a much different defense than when he left. Gone are many of the veterans who were around him as well as his old coaching staff and gone is the playbook which he was familiar with when he was the starting middle linebacker before he left.

Brinkley doesn’t quite fit the profile of a “modern” we talked about up top though, as he isn’t much use in coverage. As a pass rusher, he can occasionally bring pressure but overall he’s not much help against the pass.

Audie Cole had a solid season last year but struggled against the run a bit. Most of the damage to his rating on sites like Pro Football Focus came about because of one game—Week 12 against Green Bay. In that game Eddie Lacy dropped 110 yards and a touchdown on the defense and all three starting linebackers—Cole, Chad Greenway and Marvin Mitchell—looked bad against the rookie running back.

The rest of his season was around average against the run, but that one bad game dragged his whole average down. That said, his work on passing downs was much better as he did well dropping into coverage most of the time and was able to pressure the quarterback several times, including one sack.

All that said, we have all of 332 snaps (or six games and five starts) to judge Cole on—far too little history to definitively say he should be a starter.

Michael Mauti was drafted last year as he came off the second ACL tear on his left leg in two years (and his third overall) so it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the team took their time with him. Not seeing any action until Week 6 and only playing 11 snaps on defense (the rest of his time spent on special teams) kept his production low and makes it hard to know for sure how good he really is.

Whatever athleticism he may have had when he started out at Penn State isn’t there anymore but Mauti, like Cole, plays smart and has a nose for the ball. They can both see where the ball is going and find a way to disrupt the play.

If it weren’t for the medical issues, Mauti could have been a Day Two pick, but so many knee injuries in so short a time left teams wary. He probably has the most upside—when healthy he was an exceptional tackler for the Nittany Lions—but he has to stay on the field.

We just don’t know if his leg will hold up or if he’s just lost too much mobility.

I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw more of Mauti this year, though with new head coach Mike Zimmer it’s all a mystery.

With former coach Leslie Frazier, we saw Cole get a ton of time on special teams for a year followed by more opportunity on defense. With Frazier gone and Zimmer in town, it’s hard to know what Mauti is in for.

Given how Zimmer frequently used rotations on defense when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, we can assume we’ll see more of the same here in the Vikings defensive front.

Who will get the most snaps to start the season though and who may get the most responsibility?

How It Shakes Out Post Camp:

While I’d love to see Cole win the job outright (I am a big Cole supporter), more than likely we’ll see a heavy dose of Brinkley to start the season with Cole rotated in heavily.

A new coach means a fresh slate for Mauti, though, and if he shows enough in camp, he could steal snaps away from either or both of the players ahead of him.

That will come down to how he looks post-injuries. Mauti didn’t have a ton of athleticism before tearing his ACL (any of the three times) and if he has lost some more, all the instinct in the world may not help. You have to have at least some physical ability if you’re going to take advantage of knowing where the play is going. If you just don’t have the speed or range, you don’t have the speed or range and you can’t do much to change that.

We’ve seen just enough from Cole to think he might be the best all-around fit at the end of the season, as he can stand up against the run as well as play well against the pass. That’s a three-down linebacker and that’s valuable.

In the end, we reiterate what we’ve said before—Brinkley may get the starting job this season, but he’s not a long-term solution in a league which passes as much as this one does. You have to be able to defend the pass better than Brinkley can and in the end, that will hurt him and probably cause him to lose snaps.

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