Middle LB still a question for Vikings

Jasper Brinkley (Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY)

The Vikings have addressed nearly all of their other screaming needs in the offseason through the draft or free agency, but middle linebacker remains a position without a penciled-in starter.

For the last three years, the question of what happens at middle linebacker has been an issue for the Vikings defense – from the day the Vikings decided not to bring back longtime middle linebacker E.J. Henderson after the 2011 season.

In 2012, the Vikings made little attempt in the way of free agency or a draft pick in the first two days of the 2012 college dispersal to bring in a stud to replace Henderson, signing no big-name free agents and drafting Audie Cole in the seventh round. Jasper Brinkley got the chance to be the replacement and, while he did a decent job, it was clear he was a two-down linebacker who had coverage limitations. When the 2012 season ended, the Vikings made little effort to re-sign Brinkley, an unrestricted free agent, and allowed him to leave to Arizona via free agency.

Once again, the Vikings didn't make a big effort in free agency or the draft. They signed Green Bay castoff Desmond Bishop, who got injured (again) when making his first start, and drafted Michael Mauti, coming off two ACL surgeries, in the seventh round. Erin Henderson was anointed to the job and played pretty well, but off-field issues derailed his career and he is currently still looking for a team willing to take him on while wondering about league-imposed discipline. Bishop was allowed to quietly leave.

It appeared as though the Vikings would again be in the market for a middle linebacker in free agency or early in the draft, especially when the team brought in a defensive-minded head coach in Mike Zimmer. Despite some viable candidates both in free agency and the draft, the Vikings didn't address the position for a third straight year.

So where do the Vikings stand in terms of addressing the position of middle linebacker? Their first draft pick, Anthony Barr, is slated to be a pass-rushing strongside linebacker. Is Greenway moving inside to middle linebacker? If not, who is the starting middle linebacker going to be? Brinkley Version 2.0? Cole? He started the final month-and-a-half of last season after Henderson's personal demons caught up with him and forced him off the field. Mauti? He's a full year recovered from his most recent ACL surgery and may be ready to stake the claim that made him one of the Big Ten's most dominant defenders while at Penn State.

The simple fact of the matter is that middle linebacker has been a significant defensive issue for the last three seasons and, in each of the last three offseasons, the Vikings have done little to nothing to significantly upgrade the position – whether investing in a high draft pick or shelling out decent money in free agency.

It can be argued that the deficiency at MLB over the last three seasons cost Leslie Frazier his job. It would seem that Zimmer is being left to his own devices at the position as well. He either needs to convert a career outside linebacker to the middle or develop at least two of the trio of Brinkley, Cole and/or Mauti.

When one looks at the team prospects in early March, given that it was assumed that players like Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Toby Gerhart and Chris Cook would not be back, they have addressed just about every position on the field – quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive line, outside linebacker and the secondary. One of the few positions left unchanged is middle linebacker.

Does Zimmer have the answer for that question? We don't know that yet.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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