Who is the Vikings man in the middle? It's a question without an answer. For now, then, all we can do is size up the competition at middle linebacker as the Vikings head into their third preseason game on Saturday night in Kansas City.
There is no incumbent starter at middle linebacker for the Vikings. As the team's offseason program began, it was framed by many observers as a three-man race featuring Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti. Since then, plenty of shuffling has occurred. Cole spent much of the offseason training at outside linebacker, leaving Brinkley and Mauti to battle it out. Then, as the offseason progressed, Cole was back in the mix at middle linebacker and Mauti was training at outside (WILL) linebacker.
To review, here's what we know as of now:
-- Brinkley entered the offseason program atop the depth chart and remains there heading into Saturday night's game.
-- Mauti was originally Brinkley's main challenger, but now it appears to be Cole because Mauti is training at WILL linebacker.
-- Cole played well as the Vikings starting middle linebacker late last season.
-- Brinkley started the first two preseason games and will likely start the third, as well.
As of this week, we also know how Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer would compare Brinkley and Cole – or we at least know a little bit about how he would compare the two.
"Jasper seems to be a little bit more communicative and Audie seems to have a little more range," Zimmer said when asked about the two. "As far as the running game, they are very close and in the passing game they are similar."
It's easy to translate Zimmer's comments into "Brinkley is better against the run and Cole is better against the pass." While that may or may not be true, Zimmer's broader point when talking about this specific competition and this position as it relates to the rest of the defense is that more goes into the decision than just who is better against the run and who is better against the pass.
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"You have to look at all of the different things – how it affects the rest of the guys on the team, their blitz ability, their communication on different formations that you get," Zimmer explained. "There are so many variables with that position that goes into it that you just kind of overall look at it."
As of this point, a Week 1 starter has not been declared. Brinkley remains atop the depth chart but there's a sense that Cole continues to push Brinkley for the job. As for Mauti, Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said on Thursday that the second-year linebacker has responded well to the shuffling.
"He's done a good job. We've moved him. Mauti has probably moved as much as anybody, he's played inside, he's played SAM, he's played WILL, he's played both sides of it," Edwards said. "So, from that aspect of it, we think he has a good grasp of what we're trying to do schematically and now the opportunity to go out there and just show it. We like where he is at right now. Like I said, we have got another opportunity this weekend. I look forward for him to go out there and compete."
They will all go out and compete on Saturday night. And the Vikings coaches will soon have to go into a meeting room and decide what the results of the competition will be.