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Updated: August 22nd, 2013 9:43pm
Zulgad: Marvin Mitchell continues to 'chase dream' of being a starter

Zulgad: Marvin Mitchell continues to 'chase dream' of being a starter

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There was plenty of offseason discussion about whether Erin Henderson would be able to make the transition to starting middle linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings after two seasons of holding the job on the weak side.

What wasn't discussed in detail was who would take Henderson's old spot.

The lack of chatter was just fine with Marvin Mitchell, who admits that even if there had been talk about him assuming a starting role, he wouldn't have paid attention.

"If you listen to that kind of stuff, you don't take advantage of the opportunities," Mitchell said.

Mitchell knows he is being presented with an opportunity that he has long dreamed of getting and one that might not come again. His is a story that does not include a quick ascension up anyone's depth chart.

Mitchell has started only three times in 82 regular-season games.

Entering his seventh NFL season, and second with the Vikings, Mitchell was a seventh-round choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2007 out of Tennessee.

He was released in final cuts as a rookie before being signed to the practice squad by the Saints. Mitchell was promoted to New Orleans' 53-man roster that October and wound up helping on special teams in 10 games.

That established a pattern of Mitchell contributing on special teams. It might not get the attention of fans, but it can keep a guy employed in the NFL.

"I think defining a role is big," he said. "Once a guy knows his role, knows what the coaches expect from him, that's really big in this league. I think coming up in this league, (playing) special teams, I realized how important it is and how fast you can lose a game.

"I always want to contribute to special teams and help out. That's what I grew up (doing), that's where my background is at, that's where I started off. But (whenever) my name is called on defense, I want to be able to step in."

Mitchell spent four seasons in New Orleans and got his first two career starts during the 2009 regular season. The Saints beat the Vikings in the NFC title game that season to advance to the Super Bowl and Mitchell got the start in that game as the team opened in a 3-4 alignment.

Mitchell played the 2011 season with the Miami Dolphins, and did not get a start in 16 games, before signing a one-year, $725,000 contract with the Vikings in April 2012. Mitchell received a modest $25,000 signing bonus, but he looked forward to competing with Henderson for the job at weak-side linebacker.

It wasn't much of a competition.

Mitchell, 28, failed to beat out Henderson, although he did start in place of his injured teammate in Week 3 when the Vikings upset San Francisco. Mitchell ended up appearing in only 11 games, and playing 46 defensive snaps, in part because of a high ankle sprain.

Mitchell had five tackles and a forced fumble on special teams in 2012, but when middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley signed with Arizona as a free agent in the offseason, Mitchell saw the opportunity to realize a longtime dream.

"My goal has been to play in the NFL, play defense and be a starter," he said. "I think as a kid growing up, I didn't see myself as a special teams (player). I'm just going to continue to chase that dream (to be a starter)."

So how realistic is it that Mitchell will win the job?

Coach Leslie Frazier makes it clear there is no guarantee that is going to happen, despite the fact Mitchell is getting so much work with the first unit. Frazier said Wednesday that it's, "not out of the question in this case," for Mitchell to be a starter.

"(He has) been with us throughout the offseason," Frazier said. "He was a special teams player, but his desire is to be a starter like with all guys. We'll see how it plays out for him."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The original assumption was that if Desmond Bishop wasn't going to replace Henderson in the middle, then he would eventually be the starter on the weak side. But Bishop, who was signed as a free agent in June after being let go by the Green Bay Packers, was slowed by a groin pull early in training camp, leaving Mitchell taking the first-team reps.

The clock is ticking for Bishop to make an impression, but he is expected to get some snaps with the No. 1 defense on Sunday night in San Francisco. That provides a clear indication that Mitchell does not have the job locked up.

Mitchell, who is making $815,000 on a one-year contract this season, admits he will be disappointed if he's not starting on Sept. 8 in Detroit, but he also is prepared to contribute in whatever way he can to help.

"As a man, you come out and set your goals and you go out to achieve those goals," he said. "Obviously it's a letdown when you don't, but you can't have a small mind and say, 'OK, I didn't win a spot,' and just shut down. You look at what's the bigger (goal) and that's to win games. Whatever you can contribute, if it helps you win the games, that's what you've got to do."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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