Key matchup: Vikings’ battle in the middle

Eric Kendricks is the rookie second-round pick, but he’s battling a tackling machine in Audie Cole for the starting spot.

During the regular season, we highlight matchups between a Minnesota Vikings player or two and an opponent in our Key Matchup series. However, during the preseason, with the starters seeing very little action, we focus on internal position battles. With that in mind, our Hall of Fame Game matchup is at middle linebacker, where rookie Eric Kendricks will look to follow in the footsteps of college roommate Anthony Barr and crack the starting lineup with the Vikings defense.

Middle linebacker has been a revolving door position ever since E.J. Henderson’s career came to an end. His brother Erin had the job. Jasper Brinkley had two stints as the starter and nobody excelled at the position. The Vikings have two frontrunner contenders for the middle linebacker spot in Kendricks and fourth-year veteran Audie Cole.

Cole has made the most of his limited starting opportunities, piling up tackles when he gets the chance to be on the field for extended periods of time. He made one start last year at outside linebacker in the regular season finale and recorded 14 tackles. For a lot of players, that would be a single-game record. But, for Cole, it is merely second place. Starting in place of Henderson in 2013, he recorded 18 tackles (13 solo tackles) against the Packers

The knock on Cole is that he doesn’t have ideal mobility or agility and, if he takes a false step, he has a difficult time making up for it and getting in on a play. However, when you look at the consistent tackling numbers he has put up, a case can made that he deserves a shot at the starting role – or least be in the conversation.

The case for Kendricks is pretty simple. The Vikings viewed inside linebacker as a premium position in the draft and when Kendricks was still on the board in the second round, the Vikings jumped at the opportunity to snap him up. Given the seamless nature in which his UCLA teammate Barr blended in with the Vikings defense as an immediate starter, there are reasons to think he will get every opportunity to win the starting MLB job.

Mike Zimmer has made a point of moving players around during training camp to see what they do well and where they struggle. At times, he has put Kendricks on the outside and put Gerald Hodges in the middle. The belief going into the season that Kendricks may be a long-term replacement for Chad Greenway on the weak side, but for the immediate time being his ideal spot would appear to be in the middle.

Much of the preseason is going to involve that sort of feeling out process, answering the questions the coaching staff may have about Kendricks’ ability to set up the line calls based on what he sees from the offense – typically the job of a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Cole has showed in his three seasons that he can handle that responsibility. The unknowns that surround a rookie – even one with the intelligence and ability to think on his feet and make snap decisions that Kendricks has showed both in college and his brief time with the Vikings – will likely be the only thing that prevents Kendricks from winning the starting job. But until it happens, the battle will remain on.

The coaching staff may already have a pretty good idea who will end up in the middle of the young Vikings defense when they open the regular season next month in San Francisco, but until then both Kendricks and Cole will have five games to show what they can do and prove which one should be awarded the starting job, making their ongoing battle this Hall of Fame weekend the key matchup.

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