5 Options to Fill the Minnesota Vikings Hole at Middle Linebacker
With the 23rd, 25th and 29th picks in Round 1, the Vikings selected defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, respectively. All three players have tremendous potential and fill spots on the roster where the team was thin.
There's one position that the Vikings didn't address in the draft: middle linebacker. Last year's starter, Jasper Brinkley, signed a free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason. With Brinkley's departure, Minnesota was left with a hole in the middle of its defense.
The Vikings have a rich history at the middle linebacker position. Over the years, such players as Jeff Siemon, Scott Studwell, E.J. Henderson, Lonnie Warwick, Mike Merriweather and Jack Del Rio have manned the MLB spot in Minnesota.
Those are some big shoes to fill.
Currently, there's no NFL-proven middle linebacker on the Vikings roster. In Minnesota's Cover 2 scheme, the "mike" linebacker is extremely important. This middle 'backer is responsible for calling the defensive signals, stuffing the run game and covering the middle third of the field in the passing game.
While the position remains in flux, the Vikings have several options available to them to fill this crucial spot on their defense. The possibilities range from using someone already on the roster to starting a rookie at the spot to picking up a veteran linebacker in free agency.
The following slideshow examines Minnesota's options at the middle linebacker position. The slides are arranged from the least likely to the most likely scenarios.
We'll look at each candidate and consider his college and NFL history. We'll take stock of both experience and potential. Finally, we'll appraise how likely the candidate is to assume the inside linebacker role on the Minnesota defense in 2013.
5. Veteran Free Agent
Since the Vikings don't have an NFL-proven middle linebacker on the roster, it seems logical that the team would explore free agency to fill the spot.
Smith isn't a youngster, but he should have some productive seasons left. He's 31 years old and was an effective player as recently as 2011. In 2012, Smith suffered a groin injury that limited his effectiveness. He played in only nine games last season. Prior to his injury, Smith was regarded by many as one of the most underrated linebackers in the league.
Smith would make sense for the Vikings if the in-house options don't look up to the task at OTAs or training camp. He has a proven track record, would likely come cheap due to his injury history and might be able to play for three or four more years if healthy.
While Smith remains available, don't look for the Vikings to move on him any time soon. The team will assess its players at OTAs and in training camp, and will likely enter the season with a younger player in the middle.
4. Audie Cole
Of the players already on the Minnesota roster, second-year man Audie Cole probably has the smallest chance of winning the starting middle linebacker position.
Cole, a seventh-round choice out of North Carolina State, made the team in 2012 after impressing the coaching staff with his preseason performances. However, he saw action in only five games last year, all on special teams.
Cole has some experience in the middle. After starting his NC State career as an outside linebacker, he moved to the middle for his senior year and anchored a stout Wolfpack defense. In college, Cole recorded 328 tackles and 32.5 tackles for loss (via vikings.com).
Cole is smart and active but lacks ideal size for the position, at roughly 240 pounds.
While it seems like the Vikings are looking in other directions, Cole feels like he has a chance to win the job. In an interview with Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Cole said that Minnesota's coaching staff told him the position is still up for grabs:
When I left in January, the coaches made it pretty clear there was no one who really owned that [middle linebacker] spot. And they told me I’d have to bring it during the offseason and into camp to earn it.
While Cole's attitude is admirable, don't expect him to win the job this season. Though he's been with the team for a year, he's been unable to crack the lineup, and he needs to concentrate on making the squad as a special teams standout.
Over time, Cole might be able to work his way onto the field, but it won't likely be in 2013.
3. Michael Mauti
Seventh-round draft pick Michael Mauti of Penn State is another in-house candidate to fill the Vikings' middle linebacker spot.
Mauti was a fierce competitor for the Nittany Lions, and he displayed a great deal of character in addition to his on-field prowess. According to his NFL.com draft profile, Mauti has great leadership skills. After suffering his third ACL injury in 2011, Mauti spent a great deal of time coaching younger players and helping the team through the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal.
The problem for Mauti is health. As stated, he has suffered three torn ACLs in his young career. Mauti has had reconstructive surgery for ACL tears in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Obviously, injuries are a concern for the Vikings as they assess the former Penn State standout.
Mauti insists that he'll be ready when Minnesota opens training camp in July. In an interview with Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN.com, Mauti indicated that he "absolutely" expects to be ready when the Vikings head to Mankato, MN to begin preparations for the 2013 season. Whether his knees are able to stand up to the punishment of playing in the NFL remains to be seen.
Mauti is more likely than Cole to win the MLB job if he's healthy. Cole played but one year at inside linebacker in college, while Mauti played inside at Penn State, known by many as "Linebacker U," for his entire career. He was a productive player and a locker room leader. His intelligence on the field and maturity off it make him a strong contender for the position.
If healthy, Mauti automatically moves to the top of the list.
Unfortunately for the Vikings (and Mauti), three ACL injuries in four years make the rookie too big of a gamble to count on—at least for now.
2. Tyrone McKenzie
Tyrone McKenzie, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent after the 2011 NFL season, is another candidate for the spot at middle linebacker.
McKenzie is more likely than Mauti to get a look from the coaching staff, if only because he's been in the system for a year.
Like Mauti, McKenzie has a bit of an injury history. He tore his ACL after being drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the NFL draft in 2009. McKenzie spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being picked up by the Vikings late in 2011.
The problem with McKenzie is that, even though he's been in the NFL since 2009, he's only recorded 17 tackles. He's also not as solid a citizen as Mauti. McKenzie had a promising, but troubled college career. He started 11 games as a freshman at Michigan State before transferring to Iowa State in 2004.
After sitting out 2005, McKenzie played one season for the Cyclones before transferring to South Florida. Though McKenzie reportedly transferred to USF in order to be near his mother, it's still troubling that he found himself at three different colleges in five years (via vikings.com.)
McKenzie will see some snaps at the position during OTAs and training camp, and he probably has the edge over the inexperienced Cole and the oft-injured Mauti. However, if he was going to produce at the NFL level, he probably would have done so by now.
1. Erin Henderson
At this time, it seems like the Vikings will attempt to fill their roster hole at MLB with Erin Henderson.
Henderson has NFL experience, and has been a solid weakside linebacker for the team for the past two seasons, recording nearly 150 tackles in two years as a starter (via pro-football-reference.com).
The current plan is for Henderson to move inside. According to Ben Goessling of the Pioneer Press (St. Paul), Minnesota's coaches informed the former Maryland Terrapin of the move during the team's offseason conditioning program. Henderson is pleased that the team is counting on him.
I think I have the respect and trust of my teammates and my coaches, which I think is very important, especially when you're put into a leadership role and they're asking you to do certain things. I think them moving me to that position and giving me a chance to play, it shows that they trust me upstairs.
If Henderson fills the bill inside, look for the team to try fourth-round pick Gerald Hodges at Henderson's vacated spot on the weak side. Other possibilities include McKenzie and fellow veteran Marvin Mitchell. If Henderson can successfully transition to the middle, Hodges would seem to have the inside track to fill the outside slot.
Henderson has several advantages over the other candidates on this list. He's been with the team for five years, has a proven track record as a starting linebacker and seems to possess the necessary skills to make the move inside.
He's also got history on his side. Henderson's older brother E.J. was drafted by Minnesota in 2003, starting his career with the team as an outside linebacker. He spent two seasons as the weak-side 'backer before moving to the middle in 2005.
E.J. Henderson blossomed in the spot, earning Pro Bowl honors as a middle linebacker, before his career was ended by leg injuries following the 2011 season.
It appears that the Vikings are hoping that Erin can follow in his brother's footsteps.
While the Vikings admittedly have a hole on the roster at middle linebacker right now, it appears that the team has several options in place to fill the position.
Whether a young or unproven player like Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie or Michael Mauti can rise up to fill the spot remains to be seen. All three will be given a chance to prove themselves during training camp.
The current plan is to move Erin Henderson, a two-year starter on the weak side, into the middle. Henderson has a proven history of production in the NFL, and he is certainly athletic enough to man the position. The potential downside to the move is that the team could be weakening itself at both the weak-side and middle linebacker spots by moving an established starter.
If all else fails, there's always free agency. Daryl Smith remains available at this time, and Minnesota can likely afford to wait until training camp to see if any of its other options proves viable. If not, the veteran could probably be had for a reasonable price.
No matter what the Vikings decide, the team has to fill the void at MLB. The position is too important to be left unsettled going into the season.
Have your own ideas about who should man the middle for the Vikings? Think the team should be more active in the free-agent market? Have thoughts on the existing options? Speak your mind in the comments section below.
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