Another in a series of NFC North rookies who have generated buzz. (Full series here.)
You saw it. I saw it. Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier saw it. There is no doubt that rookie linebacker Audie Cole returned interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive defensive plays from scrimmage Friday night in the Vikings' 36-14 preseason victory over the Buffalo Bills.
What each of us does with that information, however, could be substantively different. Many of you are calling for Cole -- a seventh-round pick from North Carolina State -- not only to earn a spot on the roster but to unseat starter Jasper Brinkley, who hasn't had an impressive preseason. I'm including Cole in a series previously reserved for high draft choices. Frazier? He's doing exactly what you would expect from a coach: Tempering expectations and politely reminding everyone that "we'll look at his entire body of work as we're trying to make a decision on what's best for our team," as he told reporters Sunday.
Cole is a big dude; he measured a bit over 6-foot-4 and weighed in at 246 pounds at the February scouting combine. But a relatively slow performance in the 40-yard dash (4.81 seconds) gave teams reason for pause when considering whether he had the range that today's NFL linebackers need. (Consider that the draft's top middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly, ran a 4.58.) Here's a sample of Scouts Inc.'s report on Cole prior to the draft:
"Makes plays in pursuit but effort has more to do with it that anything else. Not a sideline-to-sideline player and has to take sound angle or risks getting sub-par range exposed. Doesn't have the burst to chase NFL backs down from behind. Gets caught up in the wash a little too much."
Cole had one interception in his college career, but when you look back at the two he managed Friday night, you see a player who anticipated throws from two veterans -- Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith -- and didn't have much doubt about where he should go after he caught the ball.
"What some people think is a lack of speed," Frazier said, "he's really closing and moving fairly quickly. His length makes a big difference. Those quarterbacks who think they can line-drive a ball in like they did the other night because of his length, all of a sudden that pass is not a completion. It could be an interception. But he has good instincts, he has good anticipation, he's a smart football player and that can offset a guy who doesn’t have blazing speed."
Like most low-round draft picks, Cole's immediate future -- whether he makes the roster or is shuffled to the practice squad -- will be determined by his ability to contribute on special teams. But you don't have to spend much time with the Vikings' depth chart to realize that even a seventh-round draft pick has a good chance to win a roster spot this summer.
Brinkley's backup is technically first-year player Tyrone McKenzie, but it's thought that weakside linebacker Erin Henderson or veteran backup Marvin Mitchell would step in first for Brinkley if necessary.
We hadn't heard much about Cole before now, but it's hard not to take notice after Friday night's events. Preseason flashes don't always foreshadow productive careers, but they're always preferable to the alternative.
"It's what you sit the night before and think about," Cole said. "Doing stuff like that. I am trying to make the team, and I hope that helps my cause."