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.
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.”
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.
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