Friday, November 29, 2013

Audie Cole and the remaking of the Vikings linebacker corps

It doesn't take much to get Vikings fans excited about a defensive performance these days, so many nodded enthusiastically when head coach Leslie Frazier announced Audie Cole had earned another start after recording 13 tackles, 1 sack and two tackles for a loss against the Green Bay Packers last week.

The play of Minnesota's starting linebackers has been a sore spot for fans this year. Those starters have missed a lot of tackles, not covered running backs, tight ends and slot receivers very well and, in general, failed to make impact plays.

But if we review the Vikings investment in this position since 2006, we probably shouldn't be surprised by the play of this unit. In 2006, the Vikings used the 17th overall pick on Chad Greenway. Since that time the team hasn't drafted a linebacker higher than the 4th round (Gerald Hodges - 2013). The team also hasn't signed any significant linebackers via free agency during that period - unless you think Marvin Mitchell fits that bill. Here is the list of linebackers the Vikings have drafted since Greenway was chosen in 2006.

2007 - Rufus Alexander (6th round)
2009 - Jasper Brinkley (5th round)
2010 - Nathan Triplett (5th round)
2011 - Ross Homan (6th round)
2012 - Audie Cole (7th round)
2013 - Gerald Hodges (4th round); Mike Mauti (7th round)

Draftwise, the Vikes have been looking to find diamonds in the rough at the linebacker position lately. That philosophy made sense from 2007-2009 because the Vikes had Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber as the starters, and they were good ones. But the bargain bin shopping philosophy caught up to the Vikings as those linebackers aged (Henderson and Leber were both out of the NFL after the 2011 season) and the team sprung a bunch of other roster holes (defensive tackle, quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, offensive tackle and safety) that management tried to fill at the expense of restocking the talent at linebacker.

This is how an organization is forced to run with a starting linebacking unit of Greenway - who at 30 looks like he might be done - Erin Henderson (an undrafted free agent) and Mitchell (a 7th round draft pick of New Orleans who has never been more than a special teams guy). And it's why the Vikings will be starting two 7th rounders, Cole and Mitchell, with Greenway against Chicago this Sunday.

You can occasionally strike gold with a late round draft pick. However, most of these draft picks are chosen that late for a reason - they aren't good football players. If you continue to use late round draft picks to stock a particular position on your team, there's a pretty good chance that position isn't going be very good. I think the play of the Vikings linebackers this year bears that out.  


  1. Good post man. In the early games at least the LB's were by far the weakest link on this team. They still aren't good and they absolutely contribute to the secondary woes. It is kind of ironic we ignore the position when the only way the Tampa 2 works is if you have good, fast LB's in addition to the pass rushing lineman. Tampa had Derrick Brooks making plays all over the field, Chicago had Urlacher and Briggs.

    Aside from being a terrible player, Marvin Mitchell is even more infuriating because of the way he celebrates the one tackle he makes every 3 games or so like he won the Super Bowl. How was that guy playing over Bishop? Bishop made more plays in his one quarter of starting action than Mitchell has made all year. I think he would have made a difference in there. I'm really hoping Cole isn't systematically targeted and humiliated this week. It wasn't a mirage, was it?

    1. ETR:

      Mitchell's effect on the defense is lessened somewhat by the fact he plays so few snaps because the Vikings are in nickel a lot. But if Bishop hadn't wrecked his knee I'm sure Marvin would be back to special teams duty.

      We'll see how much Cole plays Sunday. Frazier says Erin Henderson is backing Cole up. But how long will that continue. Are they going to rotate them a bit? I hope Cole gets a long look because the more he plays against different competition with different strengths (Marshall, Jeffrey, Bennett and Forte will test his pass coverage skills), the more we can see if he's got the chops to be a quality starter in this league.

    2. Thank goodness he doesn't play much, but it is embarrassing that he's ever on the field. He is not a starter in this league, not by a long shot.

      Yes I worry about Cole in coverage too. But Henderson couldn't cover them either, he can't be much worse. I hope he does get a long look. If Cole turns into a player, it would be pure luck because we never would have seen him without Henderson's screw up and Mauti getting hurt at Seattle. I'd say this franchise is due for some luck, but I'd rather save it for the QB pick this spring.

  2. We need to get Mauti healthy. He has the ability to be a great MLB

    1. That's what I've heard also, but with him being eased back into things all year with his knee issues we haven't seen much on display. And now he's behind Cole and Henderson on the depth chart. Perhaps we'll see more from him in 2014.