Fans may want to know who their starting middle linebacker will be at the start of the regular season, but coaches with the Minnesota Vikings are in no hurry.
To date, fourth-year veteran Audie Cole has started both of the preseason games, but there is plenty of competition behind him. Second-round pick Eric Kendricks is getting his shot while versatile third-year linebacker Gerald Hodges has also been getting increased time in the middle.
“We’re not in a big rush. We keep saying we’re going to look at the skillsets of the players we have, whether it’s different packages that we use different guys in,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “We’re just trying to - like, right now we’re working four guys at the Mike linebacker – so all four guys have done a good job of what we’re asking them to do and now it’s just a matter of just keep competing, keep getting better as we keep working through the rest of this preseason.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings will “probably” rotate the middle linebackers again in their third preseason game Saturday against the Oakland Raiders. That’s how Minnesota has approached it since training camp started nearly four weeks ago.
No deadline is set, other than getting there before the regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 14.
The traits of the position are at least outlined.
“He’s got to help with a lot of the communication stuff, but that’s not as big a deal as everybody makes it out to be,” Zimmer said. “The Mike linebacker has a lot of things to do in coverage. He’s got a lot to do in the running game. Obviously the physicality part of the game, but it’s not always that because of the way we play our games. Instincts. Make plays.”
Kendricks’ strength is in his ability to cover running backs and tight ends, and he can get to a ball carrier in a hurry, too. Eventually, he could be the replacement for 10th-year linebacker Chad Greenway on the weak side when he retires. But, for now anyways, Kendricks has been working mostly as Cole’s backup and getting some first-team reps in the nickel package when the offense has three receivers on the field and the Vikings counter with two linebackers and five defensive backs.
“You can tell he flies around. He’s got a better grasp of what we’re doing,” Edwards said of Kendricks. “You can just tell he’s gotten better from week to week and feeling more comfortable with the calls, the communication and just the pass-offs and things that we do underneath. He’s been an effective blitzer for us. From that aspect, we like where he’s at right now and just look to keep going through the process through this preseason and just see him hopefully continue to get better.”
The advantage Cole has is familiarity with the position and, unlike Kendricks, he is in his second year of Zimmer’s defense.
“Audie is solid in every aspect of it. He’s done a good job with the communication, he’s done a good job of handling it out there on the field as far as the different players, the different alignments, knowing his responsibility as well as the players around him,” Edwards said. “He’s done solid work since he’s been in there. We’re pleased with where he is at right now and we’re working about four guys, rotating them in there and just trying to get the best guys on the field at one time.”
Hodges appears to gradually be ramping up his time at middle linebacker and spent some more time there with the first-team offense in practice this week.
To date, their preseason snaps haven’t been too far apart. Kendricks has played the most, 56 snaps through two preseason games, as rookies usually play more in the early preseason games. Cole has played the least, as would be expected of a starter, with 43 snaps in the first two preseason games. Hodges played 44 snaps between the two games.
Zimmer said a decision will be made “when I decide.”
Gradually, the Vikings are honing in on a starter, but whoever ends up with the starting job on Sept. 14 will have to continue to earn it.
“We’re trying to figure it out more than three weeks ago when we first started camp,” Zimmer said. “It’s really not as big a deal that you all are making it to be. I mean, we’ll figure it out before the first game and if he doesn’t play good we’ll put somebody else in there.”