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 free-agency tracker …
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, $31.5 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.
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.
1, Veteran quarterback. 2, Starting right defensive end 3, Young, Pat-Williams-sized, true run-stuffing nose tackle
1, Cornerback: The depth chart at corner looks anemic behind Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick a year ago and a potential star if he can stay healthy. Chris Cook won’t return, which isn’t a bad thing. Josh Robinson started for the first time last year, but didn’t prove himself capable of the job before getting hurt. He might have some value, but even if he were capable of becoming one of the team’s top three corners, the Vikings still need three strong corners to play their popular nickel packages effectively.
Where things stand: Green Bay’s deal with Sam Shields before free agency set the market, and it is a pricey neighborhood at about $10.5 million a year. Day 1 of the free-agent signing period saw two of the top corners disappear. Vontae Davis re-signed with the Colts, while Alterraun Verner, a guy the Vikings coveted, went from Tennessee to Tampa Bay.
2, 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.
3, 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. The restricted market, however, has at least one intriguing name. And that name, Bengals middle linebacker Vincent Rey, is very familiar with new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Also, Rey was given the lowest tender possible. And since he wasn't drafted, there would be no draft pick compensation for signing him away from Cincinnati. Linebacker also is likely to end up being a priority fairly high in the draft.
Other needs: Depth at defensive end, a change-of-pace running back behind Adrian Peterson, depth at receiver, 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. … Two general rules of thumb on players who become available at this time of year: No running backs and nobody over 30. Darren Sproles is both, but if he’s healthy and can be had for the right price, he’s the exception to both rules of thumb. The Saints were still trying to trade him as of Wednesday morning, but could end up releasing him. … The Vikings are OK 1-3 at receiver with Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright. With Jerome Simpson testing the market, the Vikings are shopping at some degree for a receiver. … 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. Andrew Sendejo also shocked a lot of people by stepping his game up a notch last year.
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
The three-day negotiating window opened on Saturday and the Vikings focused on two needs on Day 1: defensive end and cornerback.
The Vikings made contact on Titans unrestricted free agent cornerback Alterraun Verner, according to an NFL source. The Jets and Rams are among other teams to reach out to arguably the best cornerback in free agency. Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray was Verner’s defensive coordinator for the last three seasons in Tennessee.
Verner and Xavier Rhodes would be a significant upgrade at cornerback next year, but Verner won’t be cheap. Packers re-signed cornerback Sam Shields on a four-year, $39 million deal. Verner should receive more money than Shields in his deal.
The Vikings also reportedly reached out to Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, according to ESPN. They were among a number of teams to make contact to Johnson’s representation as he reportedly won’t return to the Bengals. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been Johnson’s defensive coordinator for the last five years in Cincinnati.
We’re still two days away until free agency officially begins, but the Vikings haven’t made much contact to some of the defensive tackles on the market. They only have one serviceable defensive tackle on the roster in Sharrif Floyd and will need a big nose tackle to pair up with Floyd on the defensive line. The Vikings have some interest in defensive tackle Derek Landri, who was cut by the Buccaneers last month, but it hasn’t materialized into an offer.
Landri is free to sign with any team at the moment because he was cut. He can make contact and schedule visits with teams unlike players that will become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday, such as Johnson and Verner, that must wait until after the three-day negotiating window.
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 (3697)||People (1)|
|AFC (89)||Bears (454)|
|Ex-Vikings (45)||Football on TV (53)|
|Lions (354)||NFC (1357)|
|NFL draft (255)||NFL post-season (28)|
|Packers (508)||Super Bowl (266)|
|Vikings coaches (83)||Vikings defense (255)|
|Vikings fans (116)||Vikings injury report (291)|
|Vikings management (31)||Vikings off the field (281)|
|Vikings offense (366)||Vikings quarterbacks (257)|
|Vikings road games (77)||Vikings rookies (36)|
|Vikings roster moves (40)||Vikings special teams (37)|
|Vikings training camp (132)||Injury report (344)|
|Off the field (137)||On the road (81)|
|Quarterbacks (325)||Rookies (77)|
|Roster moves (17)||Vikings draft (267)|
|Vikings trade talk (2)||Vikings players (805)|
|Adrian Peterson (960)||Anthony Herrera (161)|
|Antoine Winfield (409)||Ben Leber (97)|
|Bernard Berrian (213)||Bobby Wade (16)|
|Brad Childress (639)||Brett Favre (808)|
|Brian Robison (170)||Bryant McKinnie (106)|
|Cedric Griffin (194)||Chad Greenway (202)|
|Chester Taylor (79)||Chris Kluwe (118)|
|Darrell Bevell (120)||E.J. Henderson (183)|
|Heath Farwell (50)||Jared Allen (408)|
|John Sullivan (206)||Kevin Williams (225)|
|Leslie Frazier (936)||Madieu Williams (78)|
|Pat Williams (154)||Percy Harvin (679)|
|Phil Loadholt (164)||Ray Edwards (173)|
|Ryan Longwell (145)||Sage Rosenfels (102)|
|Sidney Rice (273)||Steve Hutchinson (191)|
|Tarvaris Jackson (171)||Tyrell Johnson (151)|
|Visanthe Shiancoe (216)||Brad Childress (643)|
|Darrell Bevell (121)||Leslie Frazier (945)|