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.
Even Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, perhaps the most polite interviews in the league, admits he didn't really know what the heck was going on at quarterback with the Vikings last season. (Join the club, Matt).
"Well, I don't think I knew where I stood week to week," Cassel said earlier today during a conference call with the media. "There was always something going on. You never really knew until coach [Leslie Frazier] told you what was going on. You just prepared to the best of your ability and sit there and hope you get the chance to get on the field. At the end of the day, I think I was able to get on the field and I think we finished pretty strong and gave myself another opportunity to come back.
Cassel said he's been given no assurances about his status on the depth chart, but he sounds a lot more comfortable after having talked to the current coaching staff that included head coach Mike Zimmer and the widely-respected Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. And that's why Cassel chose to re-sign with the Vikings for $10 million over two years a month after opting out of the final year of his original deal with the team.
"I think there was a multitude of reasons for coming back to the Minnesota Vikings," Cassel said. "I'm a big fan of Coach Zimmer. I think he does a phenomenal job with his defense. I played against him a few times and it's always difficult to prepare for somebody like that. And also at the same time, I think the hiring of Coach Turner and my familiarity with the personnel and the potential that we have to be explosive on the offensive side of the ball, I was excited about all those factors."
Cassel said Turner will be his "seventh offensive coordinator in six seasons." But even without having played a snap for Turner, Cassel said there's already a "trust factor."
"I'm extremely excited about playing for coach Turner," Cassel said. "I think his resume speaks for itself. He's had a lot of success throughout his tenure in the NFL with multiple teams and multiple quarterbacks. Obviously, I had a chance to play against him a lot when he was in San Diego and I was in Kansas City. The one thing you always knew about [him] was you had to make sure you scored a lot of points because he was going to take his shots and he does a phenomenal job of creating mismatches with people inside, formationing people in different areas so you can get a great matchup. And it's a quarterback-friendly system that I think my skillset really fits well. ... I think he gives you a lot of confidence as a player, knowing that if I go in and do what I'm supposed to do, there's a great possibility that I'm going to be successful."
Cassel, who went 3-3 as a starter while mired in a three-headed quarterbacking nightmare with Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman a year ago, will head to training camp as the starter. Whether he keeps that designation could depend on what the Vikings do to address the position in the draft.
"I don't think anybody has really talked about [assurances]," Cassel said. "But at the same time, I think that it's a performance-based job. You have go out there and perform and compete. I've talked to Coach Zimmer on the phone and we're all very optimistic about working with each other. At the same time, I've never had one practice with Coach Zimmer. You have to go in and earn your keep every year in the NFL. That's part of the business.
"I do [expect to be the starter]. That's my mentality. I go in with the expectation to be the starter. That won't change. But you have to go out there and prove it. There are going to be two other quarterbacks, maybe three other quarterbacks, coming in here competing as well. That's what it is on every NFL roster."
Everson Griffen was talking about football as fast and as energetically as he plays the game during a conference call with reporters earlier today.
Needless to say, the defensive end who just got $42.5 million over five years with $20 million of it guaranteed is ecstatic that the Vikings trusted him enough to make him the high-priced replacement for Jared Allen, one of the best defensive ends to ever wear the Purple.
Asked how he'll live up to the pressure of being given that kind of contract to replace one of the team's all-time great players, Griffen said, "I got a workout at 10 o'clock tomorrow.
"I'm going right back to work. With more responsibility, that means you got to work harder, you got to be disciplined and the biggest thing is you got to listen. This whole game is built on listening. The coach is here to coach you and you are here to listen. It should be no ifs, ands or buts about it. They're going to tell you want to do and you're going to do it. I'm ready to listen and take this next step and become a leader. I'm excited and over-thankful. Just thank you, thank you, thank you."
As for how he'll be used, Griffen said he's not exactly sure. In his first four seasons, his unusual combination of speed, athletic ability and size enabled the Vikings to use him in many different ways. He backed up both end positions, rushed from the tackle spot in the nickel defense, lined up as a fourth linebacker and played everywhere on special teams, including the gunner on the punt team.
Griffen said new coach Mike Zimmer hasn't clearly defined his role, but was quick to add throughout the conference call that he trusts Zimmer's ability to "pull the best out of his players."
"He's going to use me," Griffen said. "They know how to use their players. I feel talking to the coaches I sat down with a little bit, they know how to use their players. They know how to put you in the right situation at the right time to make a big play. I just feel like with his mastermind skills and what he brings to the table, he's going to use not just me but every single player on the team the right way. We got all the talent in the world, but when all the talent is used right then the sky is the limit.
"I'm going to take my freakish athletic ability and use it day in and day out. I'm just ready to work and get back to what I know, and that's hard work and working on my mental focus."
Griffen did hint that he expects to see the majority of his action at right defensive end, where Allen will no longer be there to take the majority of reps. And that, Griffen said, should help him reach a higher level "because I haven't even scratched the surface yet."
"Look at Jared Allen," Griffen said. "Jared Allen is in my era of playing defensive end, he is the best player I've seen at defensive end. He was smart, he had wisdom, he listened and he worked. This type of stuff doesn't happen by you just being a guy. You have to work at it like Jared did. Jared taught me everything I know about football today. He taught me little techniques about how to use your hands, and he became a master of his craft by playing one position. When I get the oppotunity to because a master of my craft at one position, I just want to reach that feeling that I can go to whatever limits because I know I can push myself to the max."
But Griffen said he's also open to moving around if it's in the team's best interest.
"I'm not saying I'm done playing all those positions," Griffen said. "But I know I'm going to be used. It's all about maximizing my potential, maximizing my athletic ability. That's what they're going to do with me. So if I do stand up and rush or I kick down inside and do it, that's what's best for the team. At the end of the day, I know I'm going to be used and that's all I can ask for. I know I got my chance and my chance is now.
"Now, the only thing I got to do is go work. And I'm going to work out tomorrow at 10 if you want to come and watch. It's had Higher Power training right here in Eden Prairie. So if you want to come and join me, you can. But you might pass out. But you can come and join me and see all this hard work that I got for you."
NFL free agency officially started at 3 p.m. CT. The Vikings have already made a few moves but could be in the hunt for a few more defensive players. Cornerback and defensive tackle are two positions to watch now they’re able to sign unrestricted free agents from other teams.
Here are the latest transactions that have hit the wire to this point, including players the Vikings were interested in and other moves around the NFC North:
*The Colts will sign Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones, according to multiple reports. The Vikings made contact with Jones’ representation during the three-day negotiating window.
*The Bears reached a five-year deal with Raiders defensive end Lamarr hunt worth $35 million, according to multiple reports. The Vikings re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen on a five-year, $42.5 million deal.
*The Bears will re-sign linebacker DJ Williams to a one-year deal, according to NFL.com.
Update (3:41 p.m.):
*The Falcons will sign Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai, the team announced. The Vikings reportedly made contact with Soliai's representation during the three-day negotiating window. It's a five-year deal worth $33 million with $14 million guaranteed. Defensive tackles have seen more action in the first hour of free agency than cornerbacks surprisingly.
Update (3:38 p.m.):
*Now we've got some action at cornerback. Colts have re-signed cornerback Vontae Davis, the team announced. It's a reported 4-year deal worth $39 million with $20 million guaranteed.
As more deals are reported, you probably shouldn't feel bad anymore that the Vikings overpaid for Griffen. It's a good year to be a NFL free agent.
Update (4:14 p.m.):
The Jaguars have traded quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick, according to multiple reports. This has been the biggest surprise so far. The 49ers already have Colin Kapernick and Gabbert will earn $2 million next year.
Maybe Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder does have some trade value after all...
Update (4:46 p.m.):
The Vikings will sign defensive tackle Linval Joseph, according to an NFL source. It's a five-year deal worth $31.5 million, according to ESPN.
Joseph, 25, has spent all four seasons with the Giants. He’s listed at 6-4, 323 pounds and will solidify the nose tackle position on the defensive line. Joseph had 59 combined tackles last season with three sacks and one forced fumble.
The Vikings starting defensive line seems to be set now with Joseph, defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who will serve as the three-technique tackle in Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme.
Update (6:05 p.m.):
The Vikings will re-sign offensive lineman Joe Berger to a one-year deal, according to an NFL source.
The 10-year veteran has spent the last three seasons with the Vikings primarily as a backup guard and has only made nine starts in purple. He appeared in every game last season and made two starts. The Vikings have a need at left guard and also lacked depth along the offensive line unrestricted free agents Charlie Johnson and J'Marcus Webb.
Update (9:05 p.m.)
Vikings running back Toby Gerhart will sign with the Jaguars on a three-year deal worth $10.5 million with $4.5 million guaranteed, according to multiple sources. He's the first Vikings unrestricted free agent to sign with another team so far. Gerhart wasn't expected to return back to the team with Adrian Peterson serving as the team's lead running back.
The Bucs also agreed to terms with cornerback Alterraun Verner to a four-year deal worth $26.6 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to multiple reports. The Vikings contacted Verner's representation during the three-day negotiating window. The move all but points to the inevitable release of cornerback Darrelle Revis
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is a first-year NFL head coach trying to quickly turn around a 5-10-1 team that's built around a once-in-a-generation running back who also happens to be a soon-to-be 29-year-old running back.
So we'd all probably understand if he went into the free-agency signing period acting more like a kid going through the checkout counter at Toys R Us. But so far, the new guy sounds like he buys into the more restrained approach that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman usually follows, particularly during the initial high-priced first wave that will begin at 3 p.m. today and last about two days.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill, but we want to be smart with how we use the money,” Zimmer said. “We don’t want to go crazy in this thing.”
Three days ago, the Vikings top two needs in free agency were a starting defensive end to replace Jared Allen and a quarterback to serve as a temporary bridge to the future. Those needs were met when the Vikings re-signed Everson Griffen and Matt Cassel.
So you can scratch Bengals high-priced defensive end Michael Johnson off the list of players who could make the Vikings lose that patience early in free agency. Johnson is unliked to show up here when the Vikings have already given the starter's money (five years, $42.5 million with $20 million guaranteed) and role to Griffen.
The Vikings' new top priorities heading into free agency are at nose tackle, left guard, weak-side linebacker and cornerback. But not necessarily in that order.
Yes, the Vikings don't have starters at nose tackle, left guard or weak-side linebacker. But the cornerback position looks extremely bleak behind Xavier Rhodes. Chris Cook is likely to move on via free agency and Josh Robinson didn't prove himself as a first-year starter before being injured last season. Plus, even if you think Robinson will develop, NFL teams need three top corners to operate effectively on defense.
So if there's any position that tempts Spielman the way Greg Jennings did last year when the Vikings were in a serious pickle at receiver, it's cornerback. And the top ones in free agency aren't cheap.
The Vikings already have reached out to Titans free agent corner Alterraun Verner, a 25-year-old rising star who played under Jerry Gray, the former Tennessee defensive coordinator and now Vikings defensive backs coach.
Other top corners available are New England's Aqib Talib, Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Indianapolis' Vontae Davis.
The Vikings should have more than $25 million of cap space left after the deals for Cassel, Griffen and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley are calculated. So it's possible they could target Verner or another top corner and pull it off.
Of course, they'd have to lose some of that patience Zimmer was preaching last week.
“I think if we go out and spend a whole bunch of money now, we’d be upset two years from now because some of them didn’t work out,” Zimmer said. “So we’re going to be real diligent in how we approach this and making sure that not only is it best for next year, but best for the long run, too.
“Everybody sees that Maserati and they want to go buy it and you know you probably shouldn’t. You should probably buy a Ford F-150, like I got. Because if you get the F150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it.”
The Vikings re-signed linebacker Larry Dean on Monday, the team announced. It's a two-year deal worht $2.2 million, according to an NFL source.
Dean hasn't missed a game in three seasons. He's made 48 consecutive appearances since his debut in 2011. The undrafted free agent from Valdosta State played a big role on special teams last year and finished second on the team with a career-high 18 special teams tackles.
Dean is the fourth player the Vikings will re-sign in the last four days. The team agreed to terms with quarterback Matt Cassel, defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Marcus Sherels over the weekend.The Vikings will also sign linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who was drafted by the team in 2009, on a one-year deal.
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