As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.