Vikings’ linebacker puzzle coming together

The Vikings have experimented with different options at different linebacker positions. They shuffled again recently, but are starting to come together and could be “very underrated,” according to one of them.

The purple puzzle is starting to come together.

As Mike Zimmer sees more of his linebackers in training camp, the Minnesota Vikings coach is getting a better feel for who fits where.

Audie Cole began training camp as the first-team strongside linebacker. That spot now belongs to Anthony Barr, and it was just a matter of time before the big, athletic first-round pick earned that position.

Now Cole is back to working at middle linebacker, a position at which he made five starts last year for another coaching staff in a different system when Erin Henderson was out.

“He’s a big thumper guy, but he also has a pretty good range in there,” Zimmer said of Cole. “It’s good to have big, tall linebackers because it’s harder to throw in the seams. I think he feels more comfortable there, to be honest with you. I’ve talked to him about it a little bit. He likes it.”

Barr and Cole are both listed at 6-foot-5, two inches taller than any other linebacker on the roster.

Cole acknowledged that he has talked with the coaching staff about which position fits his skills best, and he said the coaching staff views him being more comfortable at middle linebacker.

“I agree. I like it in the middle. I don’t even know if it really matters what I like, but I like it in the middle. We’ll see happens,” he said.

“I can’t really say there are different skillsets (between the strongside and middle), but different fits, different movements. You’re not really worried about receivers and re-routing people and fitting from the outside. You’re just kind of going downhill – A gap, B gap, scraping over the top. I feel like I’m doing alright with it. I’ve just got to keep getting better and doing what they ask.”

The movement of Cole back to the middle came about the same time 2013 seventh-round draft pick Michael Mauti was moved from the middle to the weak side.

Right now, the depth chart looks like this: Chad Greenway is the starter on the weak side with rookie Brandon Watts, Mauti and Larry Dean backing him up. Jasper Brinkley is the starter in the middle with Cole and linebacker Mike Zimmer backing him up. Barr is the starter on the strong side with Gerald Hodges and Dom DeCicco backing him up.

“At some point, we’re trying to settle in and figure out who the middle linebacker is, basically,” Zimmer said. “We’re trying to get that done and we look at Mike (Mauti), and Mike we think is a good hit-and-run player and the Will linebacker for us usually gets covered up and that’s kind of what you get to do – you get to run and hit. That one’s a little bit more of an experimentation because I feel like that might be a good spot for him and I’m just trying to get my eyes to see what I think my mind says.”

The coach added on Mauti: “He’s got good quickness. He’s got good acceleration. He runs the perimeter really well. We’ve got to continue working on getting off the blocks and being a little more composed at the beginning of the play. He’s hyper and he just needs to relax and play football.”

Cole said learning all the different linebacker positions is good for each of them, but he admitted that every so often he will have a “slip-up” and start to react to the play as if he was back on the outside when he’s in the middle.

Now it will be up to him to battle veteran Jasper Brinkley for the starting spot in the middle of the base defense. Brinkley joined the Vikings as a free-agent signee in March after spending a year away from the Vikings with the Arizona Cardinals. Prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Vikings, starting 15 games for them at middle linebacker in 2012.

Cole figures he is engrossed in an extended preseason battle with Brinkley for the starting spot.

“I know Jasper isn’t going to lay down. We’re both going to show up in the preseason,” he said. “We’re both competitors. We’re just going to play as hard as we can.”

Neither of them figure to play much, if at all, in the nickel defense, which has typically been used half the time or more. The nickel linebacker duties appear to be the most settled with Chad Greenway taking the responsibilities of the middle linebacker there and Barr playing the other spot.

However, whether in the base defense or the nickel, Cole said the coverages required of the linebackers are different than in previous years with the Cover-2 base defense the Vikings had employed since 2006. That has all changed with Zimmer’s defense being installed this year.

Either way, Cole believes the linebackers won’t be as big a question mark as some people are led to believe.

“I think we’ve got a lot of talent and I think we’re kind of a very underrated linebacking group,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great players and we’ve just got to prove ourselves.”

Tim Yotter is the publisher of 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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