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 agent left guard Charlie Johnson said by phone today that he remains in communication with the Vikings but has been told to look around first before the two sides talk further.
"I guess the one thing I can say is the ship hasn't sailed, but they're willing to let me go out and see what other options are out there," Johnson said. "Once that happens, we'll go back to them and go from there."
Johnson said he and his agent have lined up interested teams, but wouldn't elaborate.
"Right now, we're at about five different teams that we're in communication with," he said. "Other than that, we want to keep it close to the vest right now."
Johnson came to the Vikings in late summer 2011 during a hurried-up free agency period that was condensed because of the NFL lockout that year.
"It's a little strange because the first time I was a free agent, I didn't have this much time to be patient and look at different options," Johnson said. "It's definitely a blessing, but at the same time, you'd like to know what's going to happen and know whether I'm going back to Minnesota or moving in another direction."
Johnson has started 48 out of 49 games, including one playoff contest, since joining the Vikings. He started 16 games at left tackle in 2011 and has started at left guard for every game but one since then.
Currently, the Vikings have two players on their roster who could start at left guard: Joe Berger, who backs up all three interior line spots, and Jeff Baca, who was a sixth-round draft pick a year ago.
"It's been an interesting couple of days," Johnson said. "Just looking to see what's out there. That's about it. We'll see what happens. By the end of this week, I'll know what's going on."
Johnson said he's not upset that the Vikings have chosen to let him explore his options first.
"It's just business," he said. "They have a plan in place and my people and myself have a plan in place. That's just the way it is. I've been around eight years and have had a lot of friends and teammates go through the same situation. So I know how it works. Ultimately, it will get figured out one way or the other."
New Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph hasn't won a game yet, but he did win some Upper Midwest public relations style points when asked during his introductory news conference which nose tackle he looked up to as a younger man.
"I watched Pat [Williams]," said Joseph, referring to the former Viking, whose last season  was Joseph's rookie season with the Giants. "Pat's a physical guy. He loved to slam guys, so I watched him a lot. And [John] Henderson [formerly] from the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was a big guy, bigger than everybody else, too. Nice, strong, physical guy, and he moved pretty well on his feet."
Asked what he liked most about Williams, Joseph said, "His attitude. He wanted to be better. He wanted to show everybody that he was good, he still had it. He wanted to show he was an all-time great. He had something to prove from where he started to where he finished."
With Williams anchoring the "Williams Wall" along with under tackle Kevin Williams, the Vikings led the NFL in run defense three consecutive years (2006 to 2008) and reached the NFC title game during the 2009 season. Williams' play fell off because of age in 2010, and the Vikings haven't had a strong run defense ever since.
They hope to change that with new head coach Mike Zimmer and Joseph, who was targeted as the team's top free agent priority and was signed to a five-year, $31.5 million deal on the first day of free agency.
"I have size, I have speed, I have smarts and I make plays," Joseph said. "At the end of the day, that's what this game is about. Making plays."
Unlike Pat Williams, Joseph says he's not a trash talker. But the 6-4, 328-pounder said there are some similarities between the two of them. He also said he hopes to add some more.
"Just making plays," Joseph said. "Pat made a lot of plays as a Viking. He's loved around here. I just want to be the same way."
Although he says he doesn't talk trash, Joseph sounds like a confident guy. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Giants in his second season and was quick to add that, "The first one was big, but the second one will be bigger."
Vikings free-agency tracker …
Updated March 13 with NT Fred Evans signing one-year deal ...
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.
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.
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. Johnson said the Vikings told him to test the market first and then check back if he wants. Neither side has written off the other, but it's clear the Vikings think they can do better or get Johnson more cheaply.
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.
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."
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