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.
In his prime, Antoine Winfield, who last played for the Vikings and in the NFL in 2012, was one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks at covering shifty slot receivers. If he got beat, he usually wrapped them up and limited the damage. He was a good blitzer and excellent run defender, too.
Last season, though, the Vikings did not have a reliable defensive back who could consistently stick with slot receivers. Three Vikings played more than 50 snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. They were, in order of most snaps played, Josh Robinson (212), Robert Blanton (201) and Marcus Sherels (119). Sherels and Robinson allowed the most yards per coverage snap among slot defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. Blanton was the best of that bunch, but quarterbacks still had a 121.0 passer rating when targeting him while he covered slot receivers.
Enter Captain Munnerlyn, who was solid when operating in the slot for the Carolina Panthers.
While it wasn’t exactly Munnerlyn Island, he allowed just 1.09 yards per snap in coverage the past two years, a number that would rank among the top 12 qualifying corners in 2013, per PFF. He also surrendered just one reception for every nine coverage snaps, which was respectable. He was beaten for just one touchdown in 803 snaps in the slot while picking off a pair of passes.
“When I’m on the field, I’m the big difference. I can make a whole lot of plays in this defense,” Munnerlyn, who with 3.5 sacks last season was also an effective blitzer, said Tuesday at Winter Park. “Start outside and then slide in to play the nickel back. That’s what I’m going to do. Start outside and slide into the nickel back. Make plays. Bring the physical toughness to this secondary and go out there and get my hands on some balls and take them to the house.”
Munnerlyn has seven career interceptions. He returned five of those picks for a touchdown.
While Munnerlyn again acknowledged that he would start on the outside and move inside in sub packages, he said he isn’t sure which sideline he will defend in the base defense. Xavier Rhodes usually lined up as the left cornerback as a rookie. Munnerlyn was on the left a lot, too.
“We haven’t talked about what side. Doesn’t matter,” said Munnerlyn, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract last month. “I played both in Carolina before. So it doesn’t matter.”
And given how often offenses use three or more wide receivers -- it was on more than half of the snaps across the NFL in 2013 -- Munnerlyn will be lining up in the slot a lot of the time anyway.
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.
The Vikings have agreed to terms with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to a three-year deal and re-signed defensive tackle Fred Evans on a one-year deal, according to two NFL sources. The team will also sign cornerback Derek Cox to a one-year deal, according to another NFL source.
Munnerlyn will receive up to $15 million with $7 million guaranteed. He arrived on Wednesday night and was expected to meet with the Bucs and Jets if the two sides couldn’t reach a deal on Thursday.
"I had other visits set up but the number that Minnesota offered me was the number I was looking for," Munnerlyn said on a conference call Thursday. "I was like, 'Man, instead of leaving this offer out there I'm just going to take this. I think this team is on the up. They got a lot of talent."
Munnerlyn, 25, spent all five NFL seasons in Carolina. Listed at 5-9, 195-pounds, Munnerlyn returned five of his seven career interceptions for touchdowns. Munnerlyn had career highs in tackles (74), sacks (3 ½) and tied a career high in pass deflections (12) last season.
He said head coach Mike Zimmer's scheme sold him to sign to Minnesota.
"It's the defensive side -- I wanted to be comfortable," Munnerlyn said. "I think it's the same defense we run in Carolina, the same style and the same scheme. They broke down a couple things that I liked, and I was like, 'Man, this is just like Carolina.'
The Vikings wanted a four-year deal, but Munnerlyn signed a three-year deal so he could recieve his third contract before turning 30.
Munnerlyn expects to start and shift to nickel when called. He said he's had a similar role over the last three years with the Panthers.
"I'm kind of used to doing it, and I kind of like it," Munnerlyn said. "At first I didn't see how those guys covered guys in the slot. I was like, 'Man, it's very tough.' But it takes patience and time to get it, and I think I've got it down."
Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick, said he's always had to prove people wrong about his height and whether he could play outside corner. He said when he first got into the league one of his Panthers' coaches showed him footage of former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. Munnerlyn said he's since attempted to emulate Winfield's play on the field.
"I started watching film on him, and I kind of stole some of his game and brought it into my game," Munnerlyn said. "I don't hit as hard as he do. He can really bring it when he tackles, but I try and make the tackles when they come at me and make plays just like him."
Cox, 27, is listed at 6-1 and 195 pounds. He spent last season with the Chargers but was cut this month after signing a four-year, $20 million deal last year. Cox, who was a third round pick by the Jaguars in the 2009, appeared in all 16 games last season and recorded one interception and 34 total tackles. Cox has 13 career interceptions.
The Vikings now have eight corners on the roster with Munnerlyn and Cox. They already have Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Robert Steeples, Shaun Prater and Kip Edwards under contract at the moment.
The signings also means that Chris Cook, who is an unrestricted free agent, likely won’t return to the Vikings. He’s visiting with the 49ers at the moment, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Cook, the Vikings’ second round pick in 2010, didn’t record an interception in four seasons. He’s dealt with a number of injuries throughout his career and missed a career-low four games last season. Cook was also inconsistent when he was on the field despite his size, 6-2 and 212 pounds, and athleticism to play cornerback.
Evans' signing shouldn't impact whether the Vikings continue to pursue unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Henry Melton, who is visiting with the team at Winter Park at the moment.
Evans' signing will help add depth at the position. The Vikings only had four defensive tackles, including Linval Joseph, under contract before Evans re-signed.
The Vikings have been active in free agency establishing their defensive line. Evans will be the third addition on the defensive line along with Griffen and Joseph.
If the Vikings strike a deal with Melton during his visit, the team would be two-deep at defensive tackle and signal the end of Kevin Williams' tenure. He's spent all 11 seasons with the Vikings since he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2003.
LONDON -- The Vikings injury report has become lengthy. Seven players either were limited or did not participate at all on Wednesday.
As addressed earlier today, quarterback Christian Ponder was limited because of a rib injury. Also limited were Kevin Williams (knee) and running back Matt Asiata (hamstring).
Three defensive backs did not practice -- Chris Cook (groin), Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) and A.J. Jefferson (ankle). Tight end Rhett Ellison also did not participate after missing Sunday's game against Cleveland because of a knee injury.
The Vikings health issues in the secondary are a major concern because they potentially could be without two starters in Cook and Sanford. General manager Rick Spielman gave a rare in-season media session today and said his staff, including assistant GM George Paton, stayed back in the Twin Cities to monitor the waiver wire so they could be in position to handle logistics if they need to make a roster move this week.
"I've been monitoring at 2 a.m. the wires for any potential moves that can be made, the logistics of making those moves, how you get that guy over to England, does he have a passport if we have to bring a player over here," Spielman said. "That's been kind of interesting. I didn't get to sleep until 2:30 this morning and had to get woken up. I called my people over there and it's 3 in the morning over there and they're asking what you're doing.
"We've got until 9 o'clock tonight to make a move but we have to do it on your (Minn) time. It's worked out great so far and we'll see anything from a personnel standpoint, if we have to do anything, that we'll be able to get that accomplished."
The injuries in the secondary create speculation about whether the team has contacted Antoine Winfield to see if he will put off retirement for now. Spielman declined to discuss their potential interest in Winfield.
"I won't get into any facts on who we talked to or what we're doing," he said. "We always look at options when there are injuries. We'll continue to that."
Asked if Winfield has been ruled in or out of consideration, Spielman said, "I can't rule anything. You never know."
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