With the departure of Jasper Brinkley, who signed a two-year deal with Arizona this past Thursday, the Vikings are in need of a starting middle linebacker.
The team can address the need in free agency, the draft—or even look at in-house candidates.
There was some brief talk that Minnesota had some interest in signing free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher, but he’s likely destined to return to Chicago, especially after Minnesota’s recent signing of Greg Jennings to a five-year $47.5 million contract.
Loaded with two first round picks in the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft, the Vikings could draft Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who is projected to be a mid-to-late first round pick. Manti’s stock might have dropped when he was clocked at 4.82 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.
“We want to potentially draft someone,” coach Leslie Frazier said via 1500 ESPN Twin Cities. “We need more depth at linebacker than what we currently have.”
Last year, North Carolina State linebacker Audie Cole’s stock dropped significantly after he was clocked at 4.80 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Cole ended up as Minnesota’s seventh-round pick, but garnered national attention in a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive offensive snaps.
Cole, 23, may be ready to contribute in the Vikings’ defense this season, after playing last season in a limited role. The team kept him on the 53-man roster all last season because they were afraid of losing him to another team if they tried to shift him over to the practice squad.
“He’d be an option,” Frazier said of Cole. “We played him some there in the preseason. … We have to get someone to plug in to that position, whether it be Audie Cole or whoever it may be on our current roster or draft somebody.”
Coming out of college, Cole was regarded as a good zone coverage linebacker, an important trait for a linebacker in Minnesota’s Cover 2 zone defense. While he wasn’t regarded as having elite athleticism, scouts saw him as a potential three-down player because of his versatility in coverage.
The concerns at the time were his overall build and technique while defending the run, which are things that can be improved on in the weight room and with good coaching. If Cole progressed in those aspects of his game from the start of last offseason to now, he could be primed to compete for some playing time on defense—and possibly start at middle linebacker.
Cole had zero tackles while being active for five games on Special Teams in 2012. Based on the numbers, Cole will not make the roster on Special Teams play alone. If Cole is to remain on the team he’ll have to earn playing time on defense, and this may be the year he gets his shot.
While free agency or drafting Te’o is a possibility this offseason, Cole may be the answer to replace Brinkley in 2013.