Vikings position of need: Middle linebacker

How much will the Vikings value the position after using a middle linebacker less than half the time? There are a few decent free-agent options if they are willing to invest.

Middle linebacker last season proved that it was not one of the most important positions in Mike Zimmer’s defense when Jasper Brinkley only played in 42.5 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps. With Brinkley becoming a free agent this offseason, the Vikings will need to make a decision regarding how they want to fill the role. Even though the middle linebacker was on the field less than half the time, it is still an important position, especially in stopping the run, where the Vikings were ranked 25th in the NFL at the end of the 2014 season.

There are a few ways the Vikings can go when looking at a starting middle linebacker for next season. The first would be to stick with what they have already on the team. If they were to do that, the primary players that would be in play would be Brinkley and Audie Cole.

It is very possible that the Vikings liked what they saw out of Brinkley and want to bring him back. He will be 30 years old next season, which is starting to get old on a team that has seemed to go younger and younger each of the past two seasons, but he is the third-rated middle linebacker free agent according to Pro Football Focus. Brinkley would already have a year in the Zimmer’s system and is decent against the run, earning a 7.7 rating – 2.5 overall – and 85 tackles.

The problem for Brinkley, aside from getting older, is that he is average rushing the passer (-0.1) and he is poor in pass coverage (-5.4), according to PFF. With it shown that there is not a huge need for a stud middle linebacker in Zimmer’s defense, the Vikings could very well decide to sign Brinkley to another short-term deal, but they could also decide to go with a younger player.

One such younger player could be Cole. Cole has made brief appearances filling in for injured starters over the past two years and has shown he has the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker. He is a young, athletic linebacker with good speed, but he has been known to miss his gaps when defending the run on occasion. Cole has primarily been used as a special teams player so there is not a lot of tape on him playing in game situations, but when he has played he has seemed to perform well – he recorded 14 tackles in his only start of the season last year.

Free agent options
Another option that the Vikings could take, if they do not want to go with a player already on their roster, is that they could address the need via free agency. The question then would become whether they want to spend more money for one of the top free agents or spend a little less and get a serviceable one.

The top middle linebacker in this year’s free agent class is Rolando McClain, according to PFF, and even he only played in 654 defensive snaps last season, only 183 more snaps than Brinkley played. McClain is only 26 years old and spent last season playing for the Dallas Cowboys, where he recorded 81 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions. He earned a 13.9 rating from PFF last season and is solid against the run (7.8), in pass rush (2.8), and in coverage (5.5). If the Vikings want him, it will definitely be an upgrade for their defense, but it may call for having to play him more often as it may cost some money to get him.

The second-highest rated middle linebacker this offseason is Brandon Spikes, who played in 519 snaps last season. Spikes is 27 years old and spent the 2014 season playing for the Buffalo Bills, where he recorded 54 tackles and one sack. He earned a 7.3 overall rating from PFF and is very solid against the run (7.1) and average as a pass rusher (0.8) and in coverage (0.8). If the Vikings choose to bring him in next season, he would likely be played in the same type of role that Brinkley played this past season with limited snaps. He would mainly be used on running downs.

If the Vikings are looking to get a more serviceable player at the middle linebacker position that will not cost as much as one of the top prospects, one player that might fit the role is Craig Robertson. Robertson is currently 27 years old and played the 2014 season with the Cleveland Browns, where he was second on the team with 99 tackles. Out of the top-10 free agents for middle linebacker, he played the most snaps (674) and earned a 2.2 rating from PFF.

The Vikings could also look to address the need for a middle linebacker in the draft, but it is unlikely that they would use a high draft pick on one since there are many holes yet to fill on the team. Instead, it’s more likely that the Vikings will draft one or two players in the later rounds that can add depth at middle linebacker.

Middle linebackers have been getting fewer snaps league-wide. That might be due to the fact that one of the primary responsibilities of the position is to be a solid run-stopper up the middle, and more and more teams are begging to rely on the pass. This offseason the Vikings will need to decide how important the middle linebacker is to their defensive scheme, and based on that decision either go after a free agent, draft a new player, or go with a player already on their roster.

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