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.
Stumbled across a website headline asking the question "Is a free agent familiar to coach Mike Zimmer a good fit for Vikings?"
Experience tells me, "Um, duh."
Best example I can think of: Early 1990s, Cleveland Browns. A fella named Belichick showed up in Berea, Ohio with a system in mind and ideas for how to begin implementing it. He wasn't the eccentric genius he is today. In fact, he wasn't even 40 years old and he had never been a head coach before.
Even with his two Super Bowl rings as Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator with the Giants, the leftover players didn't care for this cold-hearted, mumbling, monotone man who would walk by them in the hallway and not even make eye contact. Two players -- Michael Dean Perry and Reggie Langhorne -- even walked off the practice field after clashes with Belichick.
It wasn't long before Belichick turned to the east and began Pied Pipering a line of former Giants to Cleveland. Joe Morris, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, Everson Walls, Mark Bavaro were among the loyal Belichickians who arrrived with some gas still left in the tanks. We used to ask Belichick when LT's -- the original LT (Lawrence Taylor) -- flight would arrive.
Even Phil Simms was so close to signing that the Browns actually called a press conference to introduce him. With reporters and TV cameras waiting in the interview room, last-minute talks broke down. After a lengthy delay, an introductory presser suddenly became a hurry-to-the-parking-lot-to-ask-Phil-what-the-heck-happened news scramble.
That's the long way of saying, yes, Zimmer will have interest in "his guys" from Cincinnati. It's only natural. No, his guys didn't win a couple of Super Bowls like Belichick's guys did over 20 years ago. But the Bengals sure have known how to play some solid defense under Zimmer.
Here are the Bengals to keep an eye on:
DE Michael Johnson: The unrestricted free agent who makes the most sense for the Vikings. He's 27, 6-7, 260 and has the skills to rush the passer but the dedication to play the run even if doing so results in fewer sacks. That last part ain't easy for right defensive ends to swallow. Jared Allen isn't coming back, folks. He'll be 32 and there are better teams who need pass rushers and will pay dearly for them. And, frankly, he doesn't fit the Vikings' new defense. In Zimmer's seven seasons as Bengals defensive coordinator, only two players -- DT Geno Atkins and Johnson -- have had double-digit sack seasons. Johnson had 11 1/2 in 2012. He had 3 1/2 last year, but, according to ESPN, he tied for first on the team in pass disruptions. And the Bengals were fourth as a team in that category.
MLB Vincent Rey: Remember him? His pick-six against Matt Cassel in Week 16 gave the Bengals a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, sparked the onslaught and essentially was the final boot the backside of Leslie Frazier's career as Vikings coach. Rey is a 26-year-old restricted free agent. But the Bengals put the lowest tender -- $1.431 million -- on him. That means the compensation is a pick in the round he was drafted. And since he was undrafted, there is no compensation in terms of draft picks. The Vikings need playmakers at linebacker. Rey knowing the defense would be a big advantage.
Other Bengals to watch: S Taylor Mays, 26; CB Brandon Ghee, 26; S Chris Crocker, 33. Yes, Crocker is an old player. But he's a big-time Zim guy. He came out of retirement the past two years when Zimmer needed help at the position. "I did it because I still felt I could play and because of Mike Zimmer," Crocker said during a phone interview shortly after Zimmer was hired by the Vikings. Asked if he'd be willing to come back a third time, Crocker laughed. "We'll see," he said. Crocker doesn't fit what the Vikings typically look for in free agency. But, hey, he's tight with the head coach and he believes in the system.
Zimmer's thoughts: Zimmer was asked by reporters on Thursday about how hard he'd be chasing after his Cincy guys. He said: "It always helps because of the communication, but it’s not relative. I had no one in Cincinnati [his first year]. Matter of fact, I was the only new coach I think when I went there on defense. I had no players that came with me at that time. It’d be nice, but it’s not imperative."
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is a self-proclaimed “fixer.” He’ll accept every challenge to work his magic and fix a player, even unrestricted free agent cornerback Chris Cook.
Zimmer and Cook spoke on Monday, according to Cook’s Twitter account where he Cook said Zimmer “told me like it is.”
If it's in the cards I look forward to having him at the helm— Chris Cook (@Cook_Isle) March 4, 2014
When asked about his impression of Cook from the meeting, Zimmer said, “I don’t know. My impression is that he probably shouldn’t be tweeting our conversations.”
Zimmer doesn’t know how to tweet, but he’d like to keep those conversations private. But “The Fixer” does think Cook has potential despite an underwhelming four seasons with the Vikings.
“He’s a guy that has some ability that I’ve had some luck in the past with, getting guys to play good that have ability,” Zimmer said. “So if he comes back here then I’m going to coach him as hard as I can and see if I can get him to play good.”
Cook saw Zimmer's comments on Twitter and responded. Once again, Zimmer doesn't know how to tweet and only knew that Cook tweeted the two met on Monday.
So I guess I can't say that I had a conversation with a coach now.. Ok— Chris Cook (@Cook_Isle) March 6, 2014
Didn't even give any details and y'all take off and run with it like I gave a word for word break down ..— Chris Cook (@Cook_Isle) March 6, 2014
Other notes from Zimmer’s lunch and film session with the media on Thursday:
* The Vikings released wide receiver Greg Childs and defensive tackle Letroy Guion.
* Zimmer wants every Vikings free agent back, including quarterback Matt Cassel, defensive ends Jared Allen and Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams (all were asked), but he knows that won’t be the case.
“But there comes a point where money that they’re getting, or money that they’re asking or money that we’re willing to pay; there’s a line there somewhere,” Zimmer said. “If it crosses the line on that part or if it crosses the line on how much they’re willing play then we understand that it’s not going to happen. But we’d like to have them if it can work out.”
Zimmer said he’s not sure if it will happen but wants Cassel back. He’s recently expressed that to Cassel in a conversation.
“He’s got a bunch of pretty girls looking at him right now,” Zimmer said. “And he wants to explore and see what’s best for him. I don’t blame any of these guys. In free agency, I think that’s why they have the rules is that they get a chance to go see what their market’s worth. Then if they find a better situation than what they think is here then I think that’s everywhere.”
* Zimmer still hasn’t decided whether he will call defensive plays next season. He will use the first two preseason games to experiment with the situation.
“ I think on Sundays I do a pretty good job as far that kind of stuff. So I feel if it can help us best win games by me starting to do it then I will, but I haven’t made that decision totally yet.”
* The Vikings also announced their offseason schedule. Veteran mini-camp will be from April 28-May 1, rookie mini-camp from May 15-18 and mandatory mini-camp from June 17-19.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is lashing out his support for a quarterback again. This time it’s not Matt Cassel.
Peterson tweeted out his support for unrestricted free agent Michael Vick. The Eagles reportedly aren’t interested in keeping him as a backup quarterback and Peterson thinks Vick can do more than just start here.
@MikeVick would intently [sic] make the vikings a playoff team!— Adrian Peterson (@AdrianPeterson) March 6, 2014
Vick, 33, spent the last five seasons with the Eagles and failed to start an entire season in that span because of to injuries. He was replaced by Nick Foles last season and played only seven games. None of those are good signs, even for a temporary starting quarterback.
Peterson said after the season that he wants Cassel back as a starter next season. Christian Ponder patiently waits by the phone for his endorsement.
Spielman weighs in
Meanwhile, Vikings GM Rick Spielman was on ESPN radio this afternoon with Colin Cowherd, and was asked if the Vikings monitor a draft prospect's Twitter.
"We evaluate these college players coming out, we look at all their social media sites," Spielman said. "It gives you an opportunity to dig in further. ... If there are questionable things on the Twitter account, we can ask them if that’s how they want to represent themselves, or our organization going forward."
"Sometimes, they don’t think anyone’s going to see it or that it matters. ... A couple of guys tweeted 22,000 times. I mean how are you going to get time to study the playbook?"
Cowherd asked Spielman about the Vikings quarterback situation, starting with whether he felt bringing in someone like Vick would be a distraction because it creates a media circus.
"We can’t talk about Michael Vick because of tampering stuff," Spielman said. "In general, we’re always going to look at that, we went through that when Brett Favre was here … but we ended up getting to the NFC championship game. A lot of it has to do with how your coaches feel about it … and 'Can he handle it and help you win ballgames.'"
Speilman reiterated the team would like to draft a young quarterback and also sign a quarterback in free agency. And answered the first quarterback section by saying, "We’re looking defense I can tell you that. We have to improve on the defensive side of the ball. The QB scenario will work itself out. We don’t play any games next week. We’re not going to force the issue."
"We’ll be able to find a young quarterback in this draft, because there’s enough depth. But we’re also going to have to look at one in free agency as well."
In a quarterback-driven league, elite quarterbacks generally aren't sitting on the curb with their thumbs out when free agency rolls around in March.
Sure, there are exceptions. Like when Drew Brees blows out his throwing shoulder in San Diego, makes a pit stop under Dr. James Andrews' magic scalpel and ends up better than ever in New Orleans. But this year is a typical free-agent market for quarterbacks, which means don't get too excited, folks.
Here are the top four QBs available:
1, Michael Vick: He'll be 34 in June. He's survived to play 16 games only once in his career. And he's still unpolished in the pocket. Verdict: Pass (Unless you need a backup or you're the Raiders).
2, Josh Freeman: He's 26. He's made a Pro Bowl. He's athletic. And he has a big-time arm. But should the Vikings try to go down that path again? In short, what do they have to lose, assuming, of course, the price is reasonable? Christian Ponder is the only quarterback on the roster and there are no guarantees of landing a worthy quarterback in the draft. Remember the general perception when Freeman was signed by the Vikings last October? Remember thinking, `Wow, he's got the perfect arm to push the ball down the field, which would complement an offense built around Adrian Peterson'? Should we really scrap all that because of one stinker performance? Granted, that Oct. 22 Monday Nighter in New York was the mother of all fiascos. But the guy was thrown into the game after four meaningful practices and then asked to throw the ball 53 times. My goodness, what else, realistically, was supposed to happen? Signing Freeman mid-season when Bill Musgrave was your offensive coordinator and then turning your back on him in the offseason when Norv Turner is your offensive coordinator makes no sense. Verdict: Turner is the QB Whisperer and Freeman has the tools. Put them together and see if something good can finally come from last year's disaster.
3, Matt Cassel: He seems to be the popular choice among fans for the Vikings to use as a bridge to the future. A, He blew up that bridge by opting out of his $3.7 deal. B, I'm pretty sure he looked around before opting out to see if there was a better option available (like Houston, where he'd be reunited with Bill O'Brien). Verdict: Ship has sailed, which isn't as big of a loss as some make it out to be. Sure, he had the Pittsburgh and Baltimore games. But let's not forget the Carolina and Cincinnati games either.
4, Josh McCown: After throwing just 61 passes from 2008 to 2012, McCown completed 66 percent of his 224 passes for 1,824 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in relief of the injured Jay Cutler in Chicago last year. Verdict: Fools gold. His best landing spot is right back in Chicago as an outstanding 35-year-old backup QB.
The Vikings tendered running back Matt Asiata, who was an exclusive rights free agent, on Wednesday. Asiata will receive the third-year veteran minimum salary at $570,000, according to his agent Ken Vierra. The deadline to tender Asiata was at the start of free agency on Tuesday.
His contract is not guaranteed, but Asiata will get a chance to compete as Adrian Peterson’s backup in training camp. Running back Toby Gerhart, who was the backup running back last season, is an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return to Minnesota.
Asiata received his first career start last season in Week 15 against the Eagles and recorded a career-high three touchdowns. He also had his first career 100-yard rushing game in the season finale against the Lions. Asiata had 14 carries for 115 yards.
He played just 11 games last season due to a shoulder injury. Asiata also played a key role on special teams, Vierra thinks Asiata can become productive on offense under offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
“I think it’s a good situation for him,” Vierra said.
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