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.
Free agency begins on Tuesday, but you know the NFL. Nothing begins until there is some sort of buzz designed to hype the actual beginning of something.
So, for the second straight year, the league presents the three-day "legal tampering" period that kicks off at 11 a.m. today. This replaced the illegal tampering period that became too difficult to hide when multiple multi-million deals kept being announced .008 seconds after free agency opened.
Be careful over the next three days. Agents typically
manipulate dictate the story anytime teams with millions of dollars are chasing after players hoping to make as many of those millions of dollars as possible. And I'm not sure if you realize this, but agents don't always deal in non-fiction.
This year, team's have a record $133 million salary cap. And that number is expected to keep climbing. So a lot of players are about to be overpaid.
The Vikings are believed to have more than $35 million to spend even after agreeing to re-sign Matt Cassel. (Yeah, we bought the non-fiction tale that he was Houston-bound). The Vikings still need a quarterback in the draft, but for the purposes of free agency, scratch Michael Vick, Josh Freeman and any other QB off your list.
Here is one person's list of the Vikings free agency needs in order:
Defensive end: The Vikings don't have a starting right end on their roster. Free agency is the best place to get one by either re-signing Everson Griffen or chasing after Cincinnati's Michael Johnson.
Nose tackle: Again, the Vikings don't have a starter on their roster. And they need a Big Pat Williams-esque monster to set the middle of what was a pushover defense a year ago. The Giants' Linval Joseph would look real good.
Weak-side linebacker: I'd put this ahead of middle linebacker because this is the one linebacker spot where the current projected starter -- second-year pro Gerald Hodges -- is the least known comodity. The Vikings liked the guy enough to draft him. But we really don't know whether he can play anything but special teams. Of course, the market for UFA linebackers is weak, so don't get too excited.
Cornerback: This is a weakness, obviously, but I put it this low because the Vikings at least have Xavier Rhodes, a potential star, and Josh Robinson, who's still a work in progress and might develop into a good backup some day. But make no mistake, this is a high priority.
Middle linebacker: Not sure how the new coaching staff feels about Audie Cole and Michael Mauti. But given the state of the UFA linebackers, I'd stick with these two and look toward the draft. Restricted free agent Vincent Rey of Cincinnati wouldn't cost the Vikings a draft pick because the Bengals put the lowest tender on him.
Guard: Again, this could be a higher priority depending on what the new staff thinks of second-year guard Jeff Baca. Baca is a project, but the Vikings took him in the sixth round last year. With Charlie Johnson not expected back, Baca would be the starter on the left side. Right guard Brandon Fusco also hasn't taken the league by storm, but the Vikings have too many other needs to worry about him at this point.
Strong safety: Love Jamarca Sanford for his hard-working, overachieving mentality and locker room leadership. But if the Vikings can pair Harrison Smith with another top-shelf safety like a T.J. Ward, that would change the Vikings' defense immediately.
Wide receiver: There's prototypical talent (Cordarrelle Patterson), experience (Greg Jennings) and under-the-radar potential (Jarius Wright). But the Vikings could use more quality depth.
Backup running back: Not a priority in free agency because good backup running backs can be found late in the draft or among the rookie free agent pool. But worth shopping for at least.
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."
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.
If you're getting overly excited about the start of free agency in three days, breathe deep and try to remember how ya felt when the Eagles were assembling that so-called "Dream Team" in March of 2011. Or when the Dolphins won the spring last year, only to translate it into one more actual win on the field in the fall. Or how Daniel Snyder used to be listed among the "Free Agency Winners!" every time he'd throw money at an Albert Haynesworth.
Nevertheless, there are some quality players to be found. And, for this morning's post, we'll dip into Zygi Wilf's wallet and try to plug some holes on a defense that will need more than new coach Mike Zimmer's mind to climb out of last place in points allowed.
The Vikings' defense has craters to fill at all three levels. Here are four players who would appear to fit two of those levels:
DE Michael Johnson, Bengals: The no-brainer for the Vikings and Zimmer, the former Bengals defensive coordinator, to pursue with vigor. Johnson is 27. His best years are ahead of him. He's 6-7, 260, plays the run very well and can rush the passer.
NT Linval Joseph, Giants: Rumors suggest the Redskins are circling their NFC East rival's up-and-coming interior lineman. The Vikings should join the hunt. Their defense hasn't been the same since Big Pat Williams got old and retired. Joseph is 25 and he's a load at 6-4, 323.
The pickings are slim. And too old in NFL years. Not a big fan of free agents on the wrong side of 30, so guys like Karlos Dansby (32) and Daryl Smith (32) don't register much here. The Vikings will have to lean on their pro scouts to come up with someone younger and under the radar who fits their new scheme. Otherwise, from this viewpoint, it appears any significant help has to come via the draft or the development of Audie Cole, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
CB Alterraun Verner, Titans. Another no-brainer, even if you think Josh Robinson has some value. This team has been cornerback-starved for far too long. Or at least as long as it took Chris Cook's first contract to expire. Verner will be a popular guy in free agency because he's 25, a cornerback and knows what he's doing. Vikings DB coach Jerry Gray also coached him in Tennessee.
SS T.J. Ward, Browns. You never like to chase players who were discarded by other teams. But at least in this case, it's comforting somewhat to know that as a rule of thumb the Browns generally don't know what the heck they're doing. Pairing Ward, one of the upper-shelf safeties in the league, with Harrison Smith would give the Vikings quite the presence on the back end. And anyone who watched the Seahawks dominate and intimidate the Broncos in the Super Bowl knows how big a deal that is.
The Vikings made eight selections in the 2010 NFL Draft following a 12-4 season that ended a win away from a spot in Super Bowl XLIV. Only four of those players selected were on the roster last season and all will be free agents this season.
The team has since gone 24-39-1 with more coaching changes, two, than playoff games, one.
The Vikings didn’t operate with a general manager at the time but general manager Rick Spielman was Vice President of player personnel and handled the draft, but former head coach Brad Childress had final veto power on all personnel moves. Spielman didn't have the final say as he does now.
“Different philosophy back then,” Spielman said. “It was a different structure back then. Some haven’t panned and some have, but I think what we’ve done since then is go back and assess and analyze and I know exactly what went wrong with the ones that didn’t make it and what went right with ‘em. But we’ve used that as we’ve gone forward especially over the last two draft classes. Basically that’s my total responsibility now."
Well, a lot didn’t pan out. When asked about the philosophy in the draft, Spielman repeated, “I’ll just leave it at that it was a different philosophy.”
It’s a big reason why the Vikings have struggled to remain consistent and now have an emphasis to build through the draft. Here’s a look at who they picked and some notable players they missed in each round.
The Vikings traded their 30th overall selection to the Lions for a second (34th) and seventh (214th) pick. They also swapped fourth round selections.
The Lions drafted Cal running back Jahvid Best, who retired due to his concussion history.
Noteworthy players after selection: OT Rodger Saffold to the Rams (33rd overall pick; second round)
With the second pick in the second round acquired from Detroit, the Vikings selected Virginia cornerback Chris Cook. The team needed a cornerback and Cook had the size and athleticism listed at 6-2 and 212 pounds at the time, but he turned out to be a bust.
Cook hits free agency without an interception in four seasons with the Vikings. He missed the final 10 games in 2011 due to an ongoing domestic assault arrest that was he was later found not guilty. He was cleared on gun charges that same year prior to the arrest.
On the field, Cook couldn’t stay healthy. He played 12 games last season, a career-high, but he wasn’t productive. He was ejected in Week 13 against the Bears after making contact with an official after allowing a 46-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who previously had an 80-touchdown against Cook and set the franchise record with 249 receiving yards.
Noteworthy players after selection: S T.J. Ward to the Browns (38th overall); TE Rob Gronkowski to the Patriots (42nd overall); LB Daryl Washington to the Cardinals (47th overall)
The Vikings traded up to the 51st overall pick, swapping second round picks with the Texans and giving their third round pick, to select Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.
He served as Adrian Peterson’s backup and had his most productive season when Peterson tore his ACL in 2011. Gerhart has a career-high 109 carries for 531 yards.
Both Cook and Gerhart are free agents this offseason and it doesn’t appear that either will return. Gerhart wasn’t a bust however and will draw some interest from other teams as a possible starting running back.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Carlos Dunlap to the Bengals (54th overall); LB Sean Lee to the Cowboys (55th overall);
The Vikings didn’t have a third round pick due to the Gerhart trade.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Brandon LaFell to the Panthers (78th overall); WR Eric Decker to the Broncos (87th overall); LB NaVorro Bowman to the 49ers (91st overall); TE Jimmy Graham to the Saints (95th overall)
After swapping fourth round selections with the Lions, the Vikings drafted USC defensive end Everson Griffen with the 100th overall selection.
He was considered to be a first round pick but there were questions about his effort and off the field issues. Following his rookie season, Griffen was arrested twice in three days for public intoxications and driving with an invalid driver’s license.
Griffen made just one start in four seasons behind defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen. He’s so versatile that the Vikings used him at all four positions on the defensive line during his tenure.
Griffen and Gerhart were clearly the two best players the Vikings selected in the draft but both were primarily backups over the last four years. Though Griffen has expressed interest to return, the Vikings will have a difficult time bringing him back. There aren’t many good 4-3 defensive ends in the draft and free agency.
Noteworthy players after selection: CB Alterraun Verner to the Titans (104th overall); TE Aaron Hernandez to the Patriots (113th overall); TE Dennis Pitta to the Ravens (114th overall); DT Geno Atkins to the Bengals (120th overall): S Kam Chancellor to the Seahawks (133rd overall; fifth round); WR Riley Cooper to the Eagles (159th overall; fifth round)
With the 161st overall selection, the Vikings drafted Wake Forest offensive tackle Chris DeGeare. He was wavied and signed to the practice squad in 2011 and released right before the start of the 2012 season. He spent that season on the Titans’ practice squad.
DeGeare has signed a reserve/future contract with the Giants in January.
The Vikings also had a compensatory pick and selected Gophers linebacker Nathan Triplett with the 167th overall pick. He was cut in preseason and spent three seasons with four teams after the Vikings. He wasn’t signed with a team last season.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Greg Hardy to the Panthers (175t5th overall; sixth round); RB James Starks to the Packers (193 overall; sixth round); WR Antonio Brown to the Steelers (195th overall; sixth round); WR Trindon Holliday to the Texans (197th overall; sixth round)
With the 199th overall pick, the Vikings selected UAB quarterback Joe Webb. The team got good value for Webb, who served as a wide receiver, running back, quarterback and special teams.
However, his tenure with the Vikings will be remembered for his performance in the franchise’s last playoff game. He was the starting quarterback in the 2012 NFC Wild Card matchup against the Packers due to a deep tricep bruise quarterback Christian Ponder suffered in the final regular season game against Green Bay.
Webb became the fourth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start a postseason game after not starting in the regular season. He went 11 of 30 for 180 yards with an interception and a fumble in the 24-10 loss.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Marc Mariani to the Titans (222nd overall; seventh round); DE George Selvie to the Rams (226th overall; seventh round)
The Vikings selected Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler Jr. with the 214th overall pick and Rutgers linebacker Ryan D’Imperio with the 237th overall selection. Shuler Jr. was cut twice by the Vikings in 2010 and 2012. He spent last season on the Falcons practice squad.
D’Imperio switched from linebacker to fullback was cut in 2012 by the Vikings. He retired before the start of last season after signing with the Giants.
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