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.