EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings' final regular-season game could double as an opportunity for them to assess their future at middle linebacker.
Coach Leslie Frazier said that while Erin Henderson will start in the middle with Audie Cole out because of a high ankle sprain, the Vikings could take a look at rookie Michael Mauti, who might have unseated Henderson at the spot earlier this season if he'd been healthy when Cole got his opportunity.
Henderson was arrested for drunken driving and possession of a controlled substance on Nov. 19, and sat out the Vikings' next game against the Green Bay Packers because of a personal issue that he later said was not related to the arrest. Mauti, who'd had his left knee surgically repaired twice, banged it on the turf in Seattle on Nov. 17, and wasn't healthy enough to start against the Packers. That created an opportunity for Cole, who played well against Green Bay and started the Vikings' next four games at middle linebacker until he got hurt Sunday.
Frazier reminded reporters last month that Henderson wasn't the Vikings' top plan this offseason at middle linebacker, though he wound up starting over Mauti and Cole almost by default when the Vikings didn't bring in a proven middle linebacker. In a perfect world, the Vikings would likely put Henderson back at outside linebacker, like they'd been doing before Cole got hurt, and Mauti -- who likely would've gone higher than the seventh round in the draft if not for concerns about his knee -- might give them another truer middle linebacking option than Henderson.
"(We) Might get Michael in there some and take a look at him. See how Erin is doing, but get Michael some as well," Frazier said. "He's done some good things. This offseason is going to be big for (Mauti)."
It will depend on what kind of scheme the Vikings are running if they end up with a new coaching staff, but Mauti might have a chance to compete for the job. He's impressed the Vikings on special teams, and seems to have both the downhill speed and the temperament to play middle linebacker. He spent much of his first summer with the Vikings rehabbing from his most recent knee surgery, so the chance to go through a full offseason program could be a key opportunity for him.
Depending on how Sunday's game goes, Mauti could start to make his case for the middle linebacker spot early.