Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
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.
With the 2014 NFL draft a month away to the day, now seems like a good time to check in to see whom the growing number of NFL draft analysts have the Vikings picking in their latest first-round mock drafts.
Sneak preview: Their need for a long-term solution at quarterback is a reoccurring theme.
While a few notable draft analysts project that the Vikings, who need a major turnaround on defense, will address the defensive side of the ball with the eighth overall pick, the consensus is that the Vikings will select a quarterback in the first round for the second time in four years.
One quarterback in particular is being linked to the Vikings a lot.
Dan Kadar, SB Nation: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. “Although media reports may disagree, choosing Bridgewater with this pick wouldn't be a reach,” Kadar wrote. “In fact, he's our top-rated quarterback. In a sense, this would be the anti-Christian Ponder choice. Instead of reaching for a quarterback, the Vikings could sit at eight and get the best one available.”
Dane Brugler, CBS Sports: Bridgewater. “The Vikings have been linked to Bridgewater in recent weeks and if he's still on the board with this pick, could they really pass on him? I don't see how and they shouldn't,” he wrote.
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. “At face value, Johnny Manziel and Mike Zimmer may seem like an odd couple -- but sometimes those situations work out the best,” Miller wrote. “His style of play may not be prototypical, but you can certainly appreciate his skill set and the ways in which he makes a defense uncomfortable. No one will understand that better than Zimmer given his background as a defensive coordinator.”
Todd McShay, ESPN: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. “If I were to rank the two or three likeliest teams to trade out of their first-round pick, the Vikings would be right in the mix,” McShay wrote. “But if they stay put, I think the Vikings take the best player available, either offensive tackle Jake Matthews or cornerback Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State. I'll go with Gilbert, the top corner prospect on our board who has excellent speed, size and playmaking ability.”
Bucky Brooks, NFL.com: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh. “The re-signing of Matt Cassel gives Rick Spielman plenty of options on draft day,” Brooks wrote. “He could replace Kevin Williams with a Geno Atkins-clone who is an ideal fit in Mike Zimmer's aggressive scheme.”
Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated: Bridgewater. “The Vikings still have Christian Ponder under contract, and they re-signed Matt Cassel. But Zimmer will still have a problem if he expects either of those guys to lift the Vikings out of the cellar in a very tough NFC North division," he wrote. "Bridgewater was maligned by many after a less than impressive pro day, but he has a lot of skills, he sees the field well, and though his ceiling may not be as high as Manziel’s or [UCF quarterback Blake] Bortles’, that may appeal to Zimmer, who wants a quarterback he doesn’t have to worry about.”
Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA. “With Jared Allen gone, the Vikings are in desperate need of a defensive playmaker,” Farmer wrote. “Barr fills the bill.”
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State. “The Vikings won't take just any quarterback at this spot in the draft for Norv Turner's offense,” he wrote. “If Carr is available he makes the most sense. Minnesota may have to jump over Oakland to get him.”
Matt Smith, NFL.com: Bridgewater. “They have a Pro Bowl left tackle in Matt Kalil, a Hall of Fame running back in Adrian Peterson and two solid receivers,” he wrote. “The need is a quarterback who is able to navigate all of those tools as efficiently as possible.”
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Bridgewater. “His so-so pro day performance didn't help his cause one bit, and we're now down to debating whether he should be throwing with or without a glove,” Banks wrote. “That's the way the pre-draft fault-finding process works, especially for first-round quarterbacks. But the Vikings might represent a pretty soft landing for Bridgewater, who wouldn't have to be rushed onto the field with veteran Matt Cassel re-signed and ready to handle the starting job this season.”
Jared Allen said he doesn't hold any hard feelings against the Vikings and thinks the Bears are closer to a Super Bowl than people think during his introductory press conference on Monday.
Allen signed a four-year deal worth up to $32 million with the Bears this offseason. He said he still respects the Vikings organization for allowing him to play through the entire six-year, $73.26 million deal he signed in 2008. Allen, who turns 32 on Thursday, said there were certain things the Vikings lacked that he was looking for this offseason.
“I don’t wish any ill-will against them, but I’m excited to be a Chicago Bear, I’m excited to play against them, I’m excited to still be in this division,” Allen said. “It was time to move on. They got a direction they’re going, and we’ve got a direction we’re going.
“I wish them all the luck except to not have it against us. They’re another competitor now. They’re another team and that’s what it’s about.”
Allen turned down an opportunity to play with the Seahawks, fresh off their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, to join the Bears. When asked about his decision and whether Chicago is close to winning a Super Bowl, Allen said, “Absolutely this team is closer than people think. Don’t get me wrong, Seattle is a great team and they have great parts. They’re also in a crazy good division where the Niners aren’t no joke out there either. But the Bears, I don’t know statistically what it is but just playing against them, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are two of the top receivers you’re going to play against at that size. I know what it takes to prepare for this offense, and it [stinks].”
Allen also downplayed reports that he would retire if he didn’t find a suitable offer. He said money wasn't a major factor in his decision.
“It was never my intent but my point was that if I was going to throw my cleats and pads on for a team that had no chance,” Allen said. “They’re rebuilding at this point in your career and you’re laying it all out there because I still feel like I’m the best at what I do. If not the (best), one of.
“There’s always a threshold that I had to excess and say, ‘Is it worth going below this?’ But that was kind of my process going through. It was never, ‘Oh, if I don’t get X amount of dollars, I’m walking away.’ That was never the case.”
The Vikings have made it official. The guy who bounced Brett Favre's head off the ice at TCF Bank Stadium in the Vikings' last and only game at TCF Bank Stadium will be wearing purple the next time the team plays a game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Former Bears defensive end Corey Wootton has indeed signed his one-year deal. He's the fifth defensive lineman the team has signed or re-signed since the start of free agency.
Wootton, a five-year veteran who was a fourth-round draft pick of the Bears, comes in as the experienced backup defensive end that the team lost when Everson Griffen was re-signed to replace Jared Allen as the starter at right end.
Wootton has 11 sacks in 45 NFL games. The first sack of his career was the last play of Favre's career. It came Dec. 21, 2010 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Vikings were forced to play there because of the Metrodome roof collapse. Favre was ruled out of the game earlier in the week, but ended up playing anyway. He leff the game with a concussion after the Wooten sack, didn't play the following week in the season-ending game at Detroit. And, as of 10:29 this morning, he remains retired.
The Vikings will play the next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium while their new stadium is being built.
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, $42.5 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.
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.
NT Fred Evans: The 30-year-old unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal on March 13.
What it means: Evan will continue to provide depth on the nose, which is something he's done with the Vikings since 2007. He's not a front-line talent, but is a wide body with experience. Makes too many silly encroachment penalties while lined up with his head right over the ball, but is a good player to have for depth and emergency situations.
WR Jerome Simpson: The acrobatic, but inconsistent veteran receiver signed a third consecutive one-year, "prove-it" deal with the Vikings on March 14.
What it means: Focusing just on football, it means the Vikings now have four experienced receivers to go along with tight end Kyle Rudolph. Are those four receivers written down in pen as the top four that will start the season? No. Beyond Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, anything can happen, depending on whether the Vikings come across something better between now and September. But Simpson gives new offensive coordinator Norv Turner a deep threat that can leap and pick passes out of the air. Of course, Simpson also is prone to disappearing for long stretches, dropping too many passes and getting in trouble off the field. His arrest for DWI last December could result in another league suspension to go with the three-game punishment he served when he joined the Vikings in 2012.
LG Charlie Johnson: Agreed to a two-year, $5 million deal on March 15.
What it means: Although he struggled last season and the Vikings were willing to lose him while they focused on higher priorities, Johnson has started 48 of 49 games since joining the Vikings in 2011, including all but one game at left guard the past two seasons. With Johnson's return, the starting line should remain intact for a third straight season. General Manager Rick Spielman said he's impressed by the progress of Jeff Baca, a sixth-round pick a year ago, and that the team will be looking to address the offensive line in the draft. But re-signing Johnson, 30, for about $2.5 million this season suggests the Vikings are willing to let Johnson handle the position while they groom a backup that could take his spot as early as 2015.
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.
CB Captain Munnerlyn: A competitive, hard-nosed, 5-8, 195-pounder, he signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal with $7 million guaranteed on March 13.
What it means: The Vikings finally have someone to replace Antoine Winfield, 12 months after making a calculated, financial-based mistake in releasing him and placing blind faith into Josh Robinson, a second-year pro who had never played inside over the slot in the nickel defense. Munnerlyn has three years of experience at starting outside and sliding inside when his former team, the Panthers, went to the nickel. He's also a 25-year-old rising star who made plays on a defense that ranked No. 2 in the league in yards and points allowed last season. In five seasons in Carolina, Munnerlyn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, returned five of seven career interceptions for touchdowns. The guy he replaces, Chris Cook, a second-round pick in 2010, is still looking for his first career pick. He signed with the 49ers on March 14.
CB Derek Cox: The 6-1, 180-pound Cox signed a one-year deal on March 13 and hopes he can reclaim what he had for four years in Jacksonville and lost last season in his only year with the Chargers.
What it means: Remains to be seen. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer proclaims himself to be "The Fixer." Well, if he can fix this guy, he might have three good corners in Xavier Rhodes, Munnerlyn and Cox. Cox had 12 interceptions in four seasons with the Jaguars after being drafted in the third round in 2009. He signed a big deal with the Chargers last year, but was benched three times and essentially given up on after a horrendous outing against the Chiefs in November. The Vikings have eight corners on the roster, but they'll be looking for more, probably in the draft.
DT Tom Johnson: At 6-3 and 290, the 29-year old signed a one-year contract worth $875,000 on March 20.
What it means: He's another cog in the middle of the defensive line. Settled in with the Saints the past three seasons after moving all over the world to play, but New Orlean's 3-4 didn't suit him. Will likely be at three-technique, although his experience at end could make him versatile. A bit old, but it's a low risk and Zimmer clearly wants to improve the interior line.
DL Corey Wootton: The 6-6, 270-pounder got a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, plus incentives, on March 21.
What it means: Wootton can play both tackle and end, but is likely to be more of the latter under Zimmer. He had a hip issue that hampered him in Chicago, where he played the past four years. Wootton started 15 games for the Bears last season, so he's not chopped liver. This is an intriguing signing, if he returns to full health.
OG Vlad Ducasse: The 6-5, 320 pound Ducasse visited Winter Park early in free agency, and agreed to a one-year deal Sunday.
What it means: A four-year veteran, it's possible Ducasse could be a guy who moves around the line, as he was a tackle in college. Another low-risk signing that means the Vikings won't have to draft many offensive linemen. As we wrote in December in a feature on Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, the Vikings got younger and cheaper on the defensive line during free agency.
1. Veteran quarterback (Re-signed Matt Cassel) 2. Starting right defensive end (Re-signed Everson Griffen) 3. Young, true run-stuffing nose tackle (Signed Linval Joseph) 4. Cornerback (Signed Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox) 5. Left guard (Re-signed Charlie Johnson and added Vlad Ducasse)
6. Linebacker: The roster includes only unproven prospects behind Chad Greenway. Unfortunately for the Vikings, there doesn’t appear to be any good fits in free agency based on skills or age. This need is something that will be addressed in the draft. The muddied picture also will begin to clear once the new coaching staff identifies Greenway’s role and how and where intriguing youngsters Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges fit.
Other needs: Change-of-pace backup running back and more competition at strong safety. Where things stand: The running back could come as a bargain deal late in free agency or late in the draft.
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."
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