Hyped UDFA Linebacker Steals LB2 Job for Vikings in Week 1

NFL: Preseason-Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

All offseason, UDFA linebacker Ivan Pace showed that he was an absolute steal.

Collectively, the NFL decided that the Cincinnati Bearcat didn’t belong among the top 259 players in college football. As a result, the Vikings were able to swoop in after the 2023 NFL Draft, signing Pace to a 3-year, $2.715 million deal. The more time passes, the more the move looks like a sensational decision from GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.

Ivan Pace, the Vikings’ UDFA Linebacker Who Has Become a Starter

Going into the game, Brian Asamoah was the starter.

The sophomore showed ample promise in 2022 by offering some much-needed speed when he got a chance to get onto the football field. An offseason injury has slowed him down but the belief since Eric Kendricks was cut was that Asamoah would stand alongside Jordan Hicks as one of the twin pillars within Minnesota’s top pair of LBs.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores a touchdown as Minnesota Vikings linebacker Brian Asamoah II (33) looks on during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After all, we’re talking about a player who was referred to as a “chess piece” during the summer. A single game shouldn’t cause us to overreact, but the Week 1 contest maybe prompts us to step back a bit.

By the final whistle, Ivan Pace had picked up 46 snaps. Meanwhile, Brian Asamoah only had a pair, the same amount as Troy Dye. Jordan Hicks led the charge at 66. Clearly, the Vikings had a preference for who should be on the field while the Bucs were pulling off the upset over the Vikings.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings
Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) catches the game clinching first down late during the fourth quarter as Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (5) defends at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Unsurprisingly, the stats are more flattering for the rookie. Pace finished his day with 8 total tackles alongside a QB hit. Asamoah had 2 tackles. For whatever it’s worth, Pace put together 14 snaps on special teams whereas Asamoah was sitting at 12.

Kevin O’Connell spoke about the situation following the game. “I know that the plan was that there was going to be a little bit of rotation there,” the head coach notes. O’Connell is being a bit of a politician, going on to explain that he wasn’t able to “[keep] up with the snap counts.” There’s a half truth in there — it’s not at all realistic to expect the offense-first head coach to know the precise LB snaps — and yet it was obvious to everyone that Brian Flores was giving more time to a certain player.

Aug 19, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell looks on during the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

To his credit, O’Connell comes around to describe why there was more opportunity for the rookie instead of the sophomore: “We feel really good about kind of a three-man grouping right there, but I.P. had earned the right to be on the field. Brian had to deal with an injury through camp and those reps were really valuable. We still feel great about Jordan, I.P., and Brian.”

Downplaying the situation a bit, O’Connell lays a lot of the blame on an injury slowing Asamoah down a touch. While the sophomore LB was recovering, the rookie LB was earning important practice reps in the new defense. And, to be sure, Pace earned the right to be on the field with his play (as the coach suggests).

Technically, Ivan Pace may not have gotten on the field to officially begin the game on Sunday, but his snap count is that of a defensive starter. He functioned as the LB2 in what was a surprisingly effective Vikings defense, single-sack and zero-turnover performance aside.

Moving forward, Vikings fans will want to keep an eye on how Flores manages the snaps between his young defenders. The UDFA linebacker has been on an upward trajectory for months and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.

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