Position analysis: Middle linebacker

Jasper Brinkley saw less than half the defensive snaps last year as the Vikings spent more time in the nickel defense. It could be a position the Vikings look to upgrade in the offseason. We take a player-by-player look at the position and performances in 2014.

Jasper Brinkley
Brinkley finished his sixth season in the NFL and his fifth with the Minnesota Vikings. He joined the Arizona Cardinals for the 2013 season as a free agent, but during the 2014 offseason he re-signed with the Vikings.

He was the starting linebacker for the Vikings through the course of the 2014 season but played only 42.5 percent of the defensive snaps because he was only used in the Vikings’ base defense, not in the nickel. He totaled 460 defensive snaps during the season.

Even though Brinkley was on the field for less than half of the defensive snaps, he was still able to have a fairly successful season. He was fifth on the team with 85 tackles and one sack – the first of his career.

Pro Football Focus had Brinkley ranked as the No. 16 inside linebacker out of 60 in the NFL at the end of the season with a 2.5 rating. According to the site, he was very stable throughout the season. He never played lights-out, but never played really bad. His highest-rated game was Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he was given a 1.3 rating, and his worst games came in Week 1 and Week 12 with a -0.7 rating.

Not only did Brinkley make an impact on defense, but he was able to make an impact on special teams as well. He played 131 snaps on special teams, which accounted for 29.37-percent of the total snaps. He recorded three special teams tackles and a blocked punt that Everson Griffen returned for a 43-yard touchdown – it was the longest punt-block return in team history.

This offseason, Brinkley once again finds himself a free agent. It is still unclear whether the Vikings will choose to re-sign him or let him go. The Vikings have some young talent on their roster that could play in Brinkley’s place, and they also could use the draft or find another free agent.

Audie Cole
Cole finished his third year in the NFL after the Vikings selected him out of North Carolina State in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. He was the first player to ever be drafted out of NC State by the Vikings.

A majority of Cole’s 2014 season was spent as a special teams contributor. He recorded 270 special teams snaps, which equaled 60.5 percent of the special teams snaps. That was tied for the second-most special teams snaps taken by a Viking during the 2014 season – Andrew Sendejo was first with 274. Cole was also second on special teams with 12 tackles –Sendejo was first with 13.

Even though he was primarily a special teams contributor, Cole was able to see the defensive side of the field from time to time, totaling 90 defensive snaps. Most of those came in the final game of the season when Cole was filling in for an injured Chad Greenway and was on the field for 60 plays. During that game Cole was all over the field, recording 14 tackles – he had 26 on the season.

Every time Cole has been given an opportunity to play, he has seemingly taken advantage of it. Next season he may finally have a chance to be the Week 1 starter at middle linebacker, but a few things need to work out in his favor. Namely, the they would have to move on without Brinkley and not sign another free agent or highly drafted middle linebacker.

Dom DeCicco
DeCicco finished his second year in the NFL and his first with the Vikings, spent entirely on injured reserve. He originally went undrafted and signed with the Chicago Bears, and in 2011 he played in all 16 games – although he was primarily a special teams contributor. In 2012 he served at Brian Urlacher’s backup in OTAs when he was out with an injury, but the Bears later cut him in August.

He was then brought back by the Bears in December, but was again released in May 2013. The Buccaneers signed him for the 2013 season. Then it was the Vikings’ turn to take a shot on the young linebacker as they signed him in May 2014.

His time in Minnesota was not a good one, however, as he was placed on season-ending injured reserve on August 19, 2014.

Michael Mauti
Mauti finished his second year in the NFL after the Vikings selected him out of Penn State in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. He was drafted to the Vikings with his college teammate Gerald Hodges, who went in the fourth round.

On the season Mauti played in nine games. His role was on special teams, where he totaled 161 snaps and four tackles.

During the season Mauti was listed as inactive for four games and then placed on injured reserve at the end of the season. He injured a meniscus in his knee on Dec. 7 recovering a kickoff and he needed to have it repaired. He was placed on injured reserve following that surgery.

Next year, Mauti should be back to normal and fully recovered. His role is still unknown, but it is likely to remain the same as it was during the 2014 season – a special teams contributor.

Middle Linebackers Overview
The Vikings will have a couple decisions to make regarding the middle linebacker position before the 2015 season rolls around. First is whether they want to bring Brinkley back for another year, and if they do not, do they sign another free agent to fill his spot?

If they don’t re-sign Brinkley or bring in another linebacker via free agency they need to decide if a player on their roster – most likely Cole – is able to fill the role of the starting middle linebacker.

The final thing they need to decide is if they need to address linebacker in the draft. Not only that, but where they need to address it. Do they need a talented middle linebacker that can step in and contribute Day 1 – most likely a pick in the first three rounds – or do they use a pick later in the draft to add depth to the position?

Last season showed that the middle linebacker is not a key part to Zimmer’s defense as Brinkley was off the field for a majority of the plays. Still, it is a position that they will need to address, especially if they hope to improve their run defense that ended the season ranked 25th in the NFL.

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