Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Vikings left guard Charlie Johnson has confirmed that he has agreed to re-sign for a two-year deal that should keep the team's starting offensive line intact for a third straight season.
"We have an agreement in place for me to come back," said Johnson, who will get $5 million over two seasons. "And that is ultimately what I wanted to happen coming into this process."
The Vikings went into free agency interested in re-signing Charlie Johnson, but were willing to let him go while they addressed their many other needs, particularly on defense. Johnson wanted to return but told the Star Tribune earlier in the week that he had "about five teams" that were interested in him and that he was prepared to leave.
Although Johnson struggled last season, he still gives the Vikings continuity rarely seen in today's NFL. He has started 48 of 49 games including one playoff contest since joining the Vikings as a free agent in 2011. Johnson played the 2011 season as Bryant McKinnie's replacement at left tackle. He slid inside to left guard when the team selected Matt Kalil fourth overall in 2012 and has started 32 of 33 games in two seasons at left guard.
His return also would mean that the Vikings are likely to have the same starting five offensive linemen for the third straight season. They'll also be joined by the same offensive line coach, Jeff Davidson, who has been with the team for the past three seasons.
The team's willingness to let Johnson walk in free agency means he's not exactly a lock to start. But his contract probably means he'll start this season while second-year pro Jeff Baca, a sixth-round pick last year, and possible a rookie draft pick are groomed to take his place as early as 2015.
General Manager Rick Spielman had said Friday that the team wanted Johnson back but would also make offensive line an area of focus in the draft.
It sounds like Vikings Vice President of Football Operations and noted Salary Cap Guru (see: Seahawks, Hutchinson, poison pill) Rob Brzezinski is managing the money to General Manger Rick Spielman’s liking so far during free agency.
Asked Friday how the salary cap figure was coming along, Spielman said, “We’re in great shape.
“Rob has done a great job of monitoring our cap. The one thing as you guys know, you don’t spend up to the cap at this point. You still have your draft picks that have to be signed and added in there, you also have to leave some cushion as you head into the season for your practice squad, you have to leave some cushion for injury replacement guys. But Rob Brzezinski has done an outstanding job of keeping us very competitive with the way our cap is set up.”
Today, the website overthecap.com reports that the Vikings are $16.3 million under the $133 million cap. Make that $16,351,900 if you’re really into details. But that does not, however, include Jerome Simpson’s one-year deal, so the figure will adjust once the Simpson contract is filed with the league.
The site also reported that linebacker Chad Greenway, fullback Jerome Felton and safety Jamarca Sanford agreed to restructured deals in the past two days that will save $2.3 million under the cap.
Greenway agreed to take a $1 million pay cut to $5.5 million in exchange for a full guarantee of the $5.5 million. Felton reportedly dropped his base salary by $500,000 to about $1.5 million in exchange for being able to void next season. Sanford dropped his to about $750,000 to about $2.5 million. Felton and Sanford also got incentives to earn back the money.
Vikings free-agency tracker …
Updated March 14 with WR Jerome Simpson re-signing for a one-year deal ...
We’re tracking all things Purple, starting with what’s already happened and projecting what still needs to happen as the Vikings work their way through free agency. Here we go:
QB Matt Cassel: Agreed to terms on a two-year, $10 million deal on March 8. Signed the deal March 10.
What it means: The Vikings would have gone into free agency with their No. 1 need being a veteran quarterback to serve as their temporary bridge to the future. Cassel, who went 3-3 and played in all five of the Vikings’ wins a year ago, isn’t perfect, but he’s the best-case scenario in a weak quarterback market. Now, the Vikings can shift their QB focus to picking the right one in the draft.
DE Everson Griffen: Agreed to terms on a five-year, $42.5 million deal on March 8. Signed on March 10.
What it means: A starting right defensive end to replace Jared Allen would have been priority No. 2 heading into free agency. Signing the 26-year-old Griffen filled that need with a familiar player who’s been solid, is full of star potential and is heading into his prime seasons.
MLB Jasper Brinkley: Signed a one-year deal before the free-agency signing period began March 11.
What it means: The Vikings let Brinkley, a starter in 2012, walk away before the 2013 season. Then he failed in Arizona and was released after the season. So we’re not talking any guarantees here. He will compete with Audie Cole and Michael Mauti at middle linebacker with perhaps one of them being able to move over and compete with Gerald Hodges at the weak-side linebacker spot.
C-G Joe Berger: Signed a one-year deal March 11.
What it means: Berger might be the most underrated player on the team. He's primarily a center, and he’s been good enough to start there. But he also can be a serviceable starter and backup at both guard positions as well. With starting left guard Charlie Johnson still testing the market, Berger at least gives the Vikings someone with experience who could start at left guard.
RB Matt Asiata: Exclusive rights free agent signed his one-year tender.
What it means: Asiata is a good No. 3 running back and special teams player. The Vikings still can use a change-of-pace back with pass-catching skills as their No. 2 back.
NT Fred Evans: The 30-year-old unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal on March 13.
What it means: Evan will continue to provide depth on the nose, which is something he's done with the Vikings since 2007. He's not a front-line talent, but is a wide body with experience. Makes too many silly encroachment penalties while lined up with his head right over the ball, but is a good player to have for depth and emergency situations.
WR Jerome Simpson: The acrobatic, but inconsistent veteran receiver signed a third consecutive one-year, "prove-it" deal with the Vikings on March 14.
What it means: Focusing just on football, it means the Vikings now have four experienced receivers to go along with tight end Kyle Rudolph. Are those four receivers written down in pen as the top four that will start the season? No. Beyond Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, anything can happen, depending on whether the Vikings come across something better between now and September. But Simpson gives new offensive coordinator Norv Turner a deep threat that can leap and pick passes out of the air. Of course, Simpson also is prone to disappearing for long stretches, dropping too many passes and getting in trouble off the field. His arrest for DWI last December could result in another league suspension to go with the three-game punishment he served when he joined the Vikings in 2012.
HELLO, NEW FACES
NT Linval Joseph: Agreed to a five-year, $31.5 million deal on March 11, the first day of the signing period.
What it means: Well, the Vikings didn’t have a starting-caliber nose tackle on the roster. They also haven’t had a true nose tackle in top form since Pat Williams’ last dominant season in 2009. Not coincidently, that was the last time the Vikings played shut-down run defense. Priority No. 1 defensively for new coach Mike Zimmer is shut-down run defense. Joseph is a 6-4, 328-pounder who’s only 25 and was a second-round pick in 2010.
CB Captain Munnerlyn: A competitive, hard-nosed, 5-8, 195-pounder, he signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal with $7 million guaranteed on March 13.
What it means: The Vikings finally have someone to replace Antoine Winfield, 12 months after making a calculated, financial-based mistake in releasing him and placing blind faith into Josh Robinson, a second-year pro who had never played inside over the slot in the nickel defense. Munnerlyn has three years of experience at starting outside and sliding inside when his former team, the Panthers, went to the nickel. He's also a 25-year-old rising star who made plays on a defense that ranked No. 2 in the league in yards and points allowed last season. In five seasons in Carolina, Munnerlyn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, returned five of seven career interceptions for touchdowns. The guy he replaces, Chris Cook, a second-round pick in 2010, is still looking for his first career pick. He signed with the 49ers on March 14.
CB Derek Cox: The 6-1, 180-pound Cox signed a one-year deal on March 13 and hopes he can reclaim what he had for four years in Jacksonville and lost last season in his only year with the Chargers.
What it means: Remains to be seen. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer proclaims himself to be "The Fixer." Well, if he can fix this guy, he might have three good corners in Xavier Rhodes, Munnerlyn and Cox. Cox had 12 interceptions in four seasons with the Jaguars after being drafted in the third round in 2009. He signed a big deal with the Chargers last year, but was benched three times and essentially given up on after a horrendous outing against the Chiefs in November. The Vikings have eight corners on the roster, but they'll be looking for more, probably in the draft.
1, Veteran quarterback. 2, Starting right defensive end 3, Young, Pat-Williams-sized, true run-stuffing nose tackle 4, Cornerback
1, Left guard: The Vikings have Jeff Baca, a second-year player they took in the sixth round, and Berger in a pinch. Let's not diminish the importance of the offensive line, particularly and offense that depends on running the ball and protecting an older, less mobile QB.
Where things stand: The market isn’t particularly strong, either. Zane Beadles, Shawn Lauvao and Chris Williams were signed during the first two days. Former Viking Geoff Schwartz, a tackle/guard, also agreed to terms with the Giants. Charlie Johnson, even though he didn’t have a strong season a year ago, is looking like a better option with each passing day. Johnson said the Vikings told him to test the market first and then check back if he wants. Neither side has written off the other, but it's clear the Vikings think they can do better or get Johnson more cheaply.
2, Linebacker: Other than strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway, the Vikings really don’t know what they have at linebacker. Unfortunately, the unrestricted market is weak and/or old. The Vikings certainly have interesting prospects at middle linebacker with Cole, who played surprisingly well toward the end of last season; Mauti, a hard-nosed late-round pick a year ago; and Brinkley, who was decent against the run when he played for the Vikings before. At weak-side linebacker, they have another unproven guy in second-year pro Gerald Hodges, a fourth-round pick. In the past, at least, the Vikings didn’t use their weak-side backer a lot because they pulled him in nickel situations. Marvin Mitchell and Erin Henderson played there last year. Henderson was released and Mitchell isn’t expected back.
Where things stand: The unrestricted market doesn't look that great, which is why the team re-signed Brinkley and brought former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain in for a visit the day before the signing period began. This position also is tougher to analyze because of the coaching change. Based on the style of defense Zimmer plays, the players already on the roster will have different position flexibility, which the coaching staff still needs to figure out. Linebacker also is likely to end up being a priority fairly high in the draft.
Other needs: Depth at defensive end/tackle, a change-of-pace running back behind Adrian Peterson, possibly depth at strong safety.
What it means: Griffen moving into Allen’s role leaves an opening for Griffen’s old role, which would be tough to fill with one guy since Griffen backed up both end positions, rushed from inside in the nickel and could play linebacker in a 3-4. … Strong safety probably is something the Vikings might explore in the draft if one is the best player available. The team probably can’t help but think of what an upgrade next to FS Harrison Smith would look like, but current SS Jamarca Sanford has made a career out of surprising people as an overachieving survivor. He recently took a $750,000 pay cut to stay with the team and fight for a position. Andrew Sendejo also shocked a lot of people by stepping his game up a notch last year.
Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton met with the Vikings on Thursday, but the visit didn't end with an agreement.
Melton left the area Friday morning to reportedly will meet with the Seahawks, according to ESPN. He would've been an option at three-technique tackle with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd but that appears unlikely now.
Melton, 27 is one of the top unrestricted free agents available despite recovering from reconstructive knee surgery on his left knee in October. The Vikings would probably like to add another defensive tackle with Floyd, nose tackle Linval Joseph and defensive tackle Fred Evans, who can play both nose tackle and three-technique tackle. Kevin Williams is an option, but he'll likely see a smaller role next year if he does return. It's a thin market at this point-.
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