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.
It was an offseason of change for the Vikings, from the coaching staff to the stadium in which they will play their home games in 2014. Of all the things that will be different this season, the defensive line is up there. The Vikings overhauled that group this spring, letting two fan favorites go in free agency, signing an emerging nose tackle and putting their faith in two young players.
After looking at the big guys on the other side of the line, let’s break down the D-line today.
WHERE THINGS STAND: Outside of Brian Robison, the defensive line looked, well, different this spring without a pair of longtime defensive cornerstones in Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. The Vikings allowed those two to leave in free agency, instead hitching their wagon to talented but unproven youngsters in Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen. Still, new head coach Mike Zimmer, who relied on a deep defensive line rotation in Cincinnati, said last month that he thinks the Vikings will have enough talent and depth along the defensive line. He couldn’t say definitively, though, because a few key contributors were either sidelined by injuries or ineligible to practice due to NFL rules. Griffen and free-agent signee Linval Joseph, a big nose tackle, were limited this spring, as was versatile backup defensive end Corey Wootton. And fellow end Scott Crichton was stuck at Oregon State until the mandatory minicamp. The return of those four to active duty will boost the defensive line in training camp, giving Zimmer’s coaching staff a lot to evaluate.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: The Vikings have four defensive ends who can probably be penciled onto the 53-man roster in Robison, Griffen, Crichton and Wootton. And Joseph and Floyd, one of their 2013 first-rounders, are expected to be the starting defensive tackles. But the battle to back those two up should be interesting. Veterans Fred Evans and Tom Johnson will compete with younger players in Kheeston Randall, Chase Baker and Shamar Stephen, a 2014 seventh-rounder.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can Floyd and Griffen live up to lofty expectations? Floyd had his moments in a rookie season that included 2.5 sacks, but he has yet to distinguish himself as a starter in the league and the coaching staff has said he too often is thinking instead of reacting on the practice field. Griffen had 17.5 sacks in four seasons as a part-time player, and after the team opted to pay big money to him instead of Allen, the pressure is on the 26-year-old to produce.
Unable to build an ark big enough to contain a football field, the Vikings stayed indoors today for the last day of the team’s mandatory minicamp and the final practice of Mike Zimmer’s first offseason workout program. The indoor facility isn’t ideal for a roster of 90 players, but Zimmer and his coaching staff used the time to focus on individual technique and drill the group in situational drills.
At one point when the players were broken up by positions, Zimmer stood in the middle of a triangle of defensive position groups. He watched the linebackers and barked out something at middle linebacker Michael Mauti. Then he walked over to the defensive linemen and gave a quick pointer to defensive end Brian Robison. He turned his attention to the defensive backs, and passed along a coaching point to one of his assistants to relay to the players. It’s clear that Zimmer loves the teaching aspect of the game, and it has been fun watching him educate his players.
The final drill of the day was the two-minute offense -- in which they needed seven points, not a field goal -- and two of the three quarterbacks were able to lead their respective offenses to touchdowns.
Veteran Matt Cassel went first, but despite completing seven of his 10 attempts and converting on a 4th-and-4 play early in the drive, he was unable to get the starters into the end zone.
Teddy Bridgewater was with the second-stringers and he completed eight of his nine attempts (not including spikes to stop the clock). The lone incompletion was a drop by rookie running back Dominique Williams. With the defense backing off to avoid giving up the big play, Bridgewater gradually moved the offense across midfield with short passes, including a fourth-down completion to wide receiver Adam Thielen. With nine seconds on the clock and the ball near the 30-yard line, Bridgewater had one final shot at the end zone, and he arched a beautiful ball to rookie wide receiver Kain Colter, who made a nice catch in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
Christian Ponder was the last to go. He was sharp, too, completing seven of his eight attempts, including a short pass to wide receiver Kamar Jorden in the end zone with plenty of time to spare.
After practice, Zimmer called his players to midfield. They were joined by more than a dozen former Vikings players, including Mick Tingelhoff and Rich Gannon. After Zimmer finally broke the huddle ending the camp, the current Vikings players gave the old guys a round of applause.
Zimmer then began his press conference, and he told us that he thought he might actually miss all of his players over the next five weeks -- not that he actually shared that sentiment with them.
Zimmer talked about how he was awed with running back Adrian Peterson’s cutting ability and had some praise for Robison. But the highlight was that he said he has a date in mind by which he would like to name a starting quarterback. Sorry, guys, but he wasn’t sharing that with us today.
I’d say he was saving it for a rainy day, but, well, my shoes are still soaked from this morning.
The Vikings were active before and immediately after the start of free agency, spending big bucks to re-sign defensive end Everson Griffen and quarterback Matt Cassel then bolstering their defense by adding defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Now, a month after the NFL’s shopping spree began, all of the marquee free agents have been snatched up and the spending has died down around the league. But G.M. Rick Spielman and the Vikings have shown they still plan to tinker with the roster, evidenced by last week’s signing of wide receiver Lestar Jean and their contract offer to free-agent safety Kurt Coleman.
As of this morning, the Vikings have just under $11 million in salary cap space remaining, according to overthecap.com, so they will likely carry financial flexibility into the 2014 season.
That space could also allow them to offer an extension to an emerging young player -- tight end Kyle Rudolph is an obvious candidate -- before that player comes close to reaching free agency.
That is a post for another day, though, because today, I wanted to take a closer look at how the Vikings have spent their money. The website overthecap.com is a valuable resource, and it allows you to look at how much money each of the 32 teams is spending for each position.
For example, even though the Vikings are still in need of a backup running back to take some of the burden from Adrian Peterson, something my colleague Mark Craig explored over the weekend, no team has committed more of their salary cap space to the running back position.
As of this morning, the Vikings had $61.28 million of their cap space allocated to offensive players and $52.93 million to defenders. Their three specialists combine for a $2.41 million cap figure.
Let’s run though the numbers and see how much the Vikings are paying at each position group.
Quarterback ($8.98 million, 20th in the NFL): The Vikings are spending $8.98 million at the quarterback position after bringing back Cassel with a two-year, $10.5 million deal. Christian Ponder, a former first-round pick turned clipboard-holder, has a cap hit of $3.23 million. A dozen teams are spending less at the position, including the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, which shows how helpful it can be to have a quality starting quarterback on a rookie deal.
Running back ($19.16 million, most in the NFL): The Vikings have the NFL’s best back in Peterson, but he also carries a premier contract. Peterson has a cap number of $14.4 million this season, the highest cap figure on the team and the highest among NFL running backs. And with $2.13 million on the cap, Jerome Felton is carries one of the highest figures among fullbacks.
Wide receiver ($12.29 million, 21st in the NFL): Greg Jennings, in the second year of his contract, will count for $7 million against the cap. But the rest of the team's wide receivers combine to make just over $5 million. At $1.64 million, Cordarrelle Patterson should be bargain.
Tight end ($1.97 million, 30th in the NFL): Only two teams are spending less money on tight ends than the Vikings. In the final year of his rookie deal, Rudolph has a cap hit of $1.47 million.
Offensive line ($23.05 million, 17th in the NFL): The Vikings have one of the NFL's better pairs of starting offensive tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but they are only counting for a combined $11.14 million in salary cap space. Center John Sullivan has a cap hit of $4.75 million. The collective cap hits of those three will go up in 2015, but only about $3 million combined.
Defensive end ($16.59 million, ninth in the NFL): Despite letting long-time sack specialist Jared Allen walk in free agency, the Vikings still have a large amount of salary committed to this critical position. Griffen's $8.2 million cap figure is second on the team to only Peterson. Fellow starter Brian Robison, who also got a new deal from the Vikings, has a $5.7 million cap figure.
Defensive tackle ($11.27 million, 11th in the NFL): Joseph, the newcomer at nose tackle, has a cap figure of $5.75 million, fifth-highest on the Vikings roster. Sharrif Floyd, a 2013 first-round draft pick and the other projected starter at defensive tackle, carries a cap hit of $1.84 million.
Linebacker ($11.03 million, 24th in the NFL): The Vikings have a lot of youngsters at this position group, and those guys come relatively cheap. Veteran starter Chad Greenway, however, has a big cap number of $7.2 million, which ranks third on the Vikings behind Peterson and Griffen.
Cornerback ($9.81 million, 25th in the NFL): Munnerlyn was a significant signing for the Vikings, who needed a corner to play in the slot. But he carries a modest cap hit of just $3.33 million. Only one other Vikings cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, has a cap hit of more than $1 million. Derek Cox, a former starter in Jacksonville then San Diego, will make just $780,000.
Safeties ($6.40 million, 21st in the NFL): Starting strong safety Jamarca Sanford has a cap hit of $2.5 million, higher than starting free safety Harrison Smith, who has a $1.95 million cap figure.
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.
The hiring of Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, as Vikings coach has met the approval of some Vikings defensive players.
“It’s a good hire,” said defensive end Brian Robison. “I think he’s one of those guys that’s very passionate. Obviously he’s going to expect the best out of his players week-in, week-out, and I think it’s a great job. [General manager] Rick [Spielman] and them did their homework as far as interviewing a bunch of guys and came up with what best suits our organization.”
The intense Zimmer will be a change from Leslie Frazier, who was usually calm and collected.
“We’ve got the guys in the locker room to handle any type of coach they throw at us. I think we got a lot of mentally tough guys that, if you look at our season last year, things weren’t going the way they needed to be. Guys stayed in and fought hard, so I think we have guys that can pretty much handle anything in that locker room.”
There is a thought that Zimmer will switch to a 3-4 based defense. Here's what Robison had to say about that:
"We’re not sure what type of defense he’s going to run because of the different backgrounds he’s had over the years, but it’s going to be very interesting to see what kind of things we do under a new scheme, or even the same scheme. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but one thing we do know is that we’ve got a new head coach and we’ve got to rally behind him and get some Ws back here.
"I would love to do a hybrid type of defense. Maybe throw in some 3-4 plays, some 4-3 plays. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. Bottom line is if he decides we’re going to do a 3-4, I’m open to being a 3-4 outside linebacker. We stay with the 4-3, I’m totally fine with that too. I’m confident in my athletic ability to do anything at this point."
Robison talked to defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who played under Zimmer when Zimmer was a Cowboys assistant.
"Bottom line was that he said he’s a guy that’s obviously going to kind of be a hard guy on you," Robison said. "He’s going to yell at you and trying to get the best out of you but at the same time if you deserve praise, he’s going to praise you up. It’s just a different change of pace I guess from Coach Frazier."
Other Vikings reaction:
Safety Jamarca Sanford: “I’ve heard nothing but great things about him. I heard he’s a passionate coach, a player coach, a man of respect. That’s what you want out of a head coach.
“I like the way he communicates with the players on the sidelines, he’ll get in your face and he’s aggressive. I love that as a defensive player. That’s what every defensive player wants.
“You see the things he did in Cincinnati. They were playing great defense out there. That’s one aspect we’re looking to correct. That’s the last thing you want to be, almost dead last in the league in defense.”
Center John Sullivan tweeted: “Very excited to play for coach Zimmer and to see the staff that he puts together. #skolvikings”
Defensive end Everson Griffen, who will be a free agent, said: “Seems like the Bengals went far this year in the playoffs, and he called good plays on defense. Haven’t heard too much about him, but I can tell you that the way the Bengals play defense, the way they attack the ball and some of the things I’ve heard from guys around the league on his mentality, his style and aggression, it seems like a good fit for the Minnesota Vikings.”
Kicker Blair Walsh tweeted: "Congrats Coach Zimmer. Welcome to the Vikings!"
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