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.
The Vikings reportedly are bringing in Saints free agent defensive lineman Tom Johnson for a visit and a physical on Thursday. He would help provide the depth the team was trying to fill when it brought in Chicago's Henry Melton, who has since signed with Dallas.
FoxSports 1 reported that Johnson will go through a visit and a physical. USA Today reported that if Johnson passes his physical, the Vikings already have a one-year, $845,000 deal with added incentives already in place.
To say Johnson is a journeyman is an understatement.
After going undrafted in 2005, the Colts signed him, but then cut him in training camp. He was out of football in 2005 before signing back with the Colts in May of 2006. Indianapolis assigned him to the Cologne Centurions of the now-defunct NFL Europe.
Johnson spent 2008 with two Arena League teams, the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Philadelphia Soul. He moved on to the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders in 2009 and 2010.
He has been with the Saints since 2011. In three seasons, Johnson, who turns 30 on Aug. 30, has played 55 games with no starts and has five sacks and 55 tackles.
The 6-3, 288-pounder played end in the Saints' 3-4 scheme. The Vikings need depth at the three-technique tackle spot and end. They tried to sign former Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, but he ended up signing with Dallas.
For the second time in three days and the third time in less than a week, the Vikings have sent, among others, coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and General Manager Rick Spielman on the road to watch a quarterback during his college pro day.
After watching Alabama’s A.J. McCarron last week and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater on Monday, the Vikings were among the masses that went to Central Florida today for Blake Bortles’ workout. They'll also be at Johnny Manziel's pro day on March 27.
According to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who covered today's workout, Bortles was satisfactory. And that’s a step up from Mayock’s level of disappointment with Bridgewater’s shaky and inaccurate effort on Monday.
“I thought [the workout] looked like it was supposed to look like,” Mayock said of Bortles’ pro day. “When you’re talking about a 6-foot-5, 229-pound quarterback, he’s athletic, and that’s obvious. … I thought it was really solid from every perspective. … Really good arm strength. I wouldn’t say elite, but I’d say really good. I think the word for this kid is `potential.’ Young, he’s got a lot of work to do and I can see that on tape. But what I saw out there is he’s potentially a franchise quarterback.”
The word “potentially” must feel frightening to the men who must make the call on whether to take this guy or any of the other top quarterbacks near or at the top of the draft on May 8. Make the right call and you turn around your franchise, save your job and raise your guru status. Blow the pick and you’re right back in this spot three years later, assuming you don’t get fired.
Making that pick can be the toughest decision that an NFL executive has to make. ESPN’s Ben Goessling did a strong piece on why quarterbacks are so difficult to assess. It made me think of answers that Tony Romo gave to a couple of questions I posed to him during a conference call prior to last year’s Vikings-Cowboys game.
Romo isn’t the greatest quarterback in the game today, but you have to admit he's become a ton or two better than anyone would ever expect from an undrafted free agent.
I asked Romo what it is about quarterbacks and the draft selection process that can lead to No. 1 overall picks flopping and undrafted free-agents flourishing.
“I think sometimes only certain people can evaluate the quarterback position at a high level,” Romo said. “I think it’s a very tough thing to do because there are so many things that go into it. And I think it’s a difficult position to gauge. Just [the offensive] system alone dictates differing decision-making processes and I think that unless you’re really the guy coaching him and teaching him, you don’t necessarily know his strengths and negatives.”
I then asked Romo for the one trait he would look for if he were in charge of drafting a quarterback coming out of college?
“Instincts,” he said. “Just their ability to get through progressions at a fast rate. You can always work on accuracy, you can always work on footwork. You can get guys to do the right things and be leaders and all that stuff. But inherently what you can’t teach him is to see the field quickly, react quickly and get through stuff fast. That’s where I find that [teams] just miss the mark the most times with young guys.”
Poise and a quick thought process when all heck is breaking loose. Find that and you find the key ingredient for greatness at quarterback. And, no, there isn't a combine drill that measures this trait.
Lying is a strong word, so we won't use that one. So we'll phrase the following question this way: How do you know an NFL executive is being less than forthright for competitive reasons, particularly in the spring, when he's elbowing 31 other execs while trying to overhaul his roster at the start of a new league year?
A: His lips are moving. (Ba-dump-ba).
When it comes to being less than forthright for competitive reasons, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman performs at a high level. That's not a rip. Unless you're the Browns and you're still nursing that Spielman smokescreening you choked on while trading up one spot to take Trent Richardson in 2012.
We bring this up because Henry Melton, the former Bears defensive tackle, finally ended his multi-city free agency tour by picking a team to sign with. In picking Dallas, Hank managed to choose the only defense worse than the Vikings a year ago. And in doing so, he also cracked the door open a smidge for the possibility that the Vikings might bring Kevin Williams back for a 12th season.
The Vikings tabbed Melton as the guy who could provide depth at the three-technique tackle spot and replace some of that interior pass rush that Everson Griffen provided off the bench the past four years. Griffen, of course, is now the starting right end.
Melton left Winter Park late last week without a deal, but the Vikings had stayed in touch with his agent just in case.
The day that Melton left town, Spielman was on a conference call with local reporters. He was asked if the Vikings still have interest in Kevin Williams, who will be 34 in August.
Asking the Vikings if they want Williams and Williams if he wants the Vikings has been a popular question around town for months. It, so far, has produced the vague responses that now qualify as hot news. The Vikings say they love Williams and will see how things go. Williams says he loves the Vikings and will see how things go.
Well, it might be time to find out how things actually will go. For the record, here was Spielman's public comments on Williams as of last Friday:
"I talked to his agent a few days ago and we’re continuing to monitor that. There’s no decision that’s been made. I told him we’d leave it open but we are trying to address some other needs that we definitely wanted to get done first, but there’s no decision that’s been made on Kevin Williams at this point."
Signing Williams isn't -- or shouldn't -- be like signing some other guy off the street in March. The Vikings can't -- or shouldn't -- just bring him in to compete for depth at defensive tackle. They need to have a better feel for whether this soon-to-be 34-year-old will make Mike Zimmer's team and have a role that he's 100 percent comfortable with.
If the possibility of bringing him in and then having to cut him to make room for some more affordable no-name youngster with an upside is even a remote possibility, then the Vikings should look to sign someone else. That has to -- or should be -- part of the decision-making process involving Williams.
Former Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, who visited the Vikings last week, has tweeted (@HenMel) that he's joining the Dallas Cowboys. Here's what he said at @HenMel:
"Thank you chicago for the best 5 years of my life!.... I can't wait to begin the next chapter of my life... With a star on my helmet."
The Vikings, one of multiple teams the Melton visited, wanted the 2012 Pro Bowler to add depth and a pass rushing presence at the three-technique tackle spot. Sharrif Floyd, by virtue of being the 23rd overall pick a year ago, is the presumed starter, which most likely played a role in Melton's decision to move on from his visit to Winter Park late last week.
The biggest need left as the Vikings maneuver through Week 2 of free agency while preparing for the draft is linebacker.
Beyond Chad Greenway, the Vikings have no proven starting-caliber players to fill the other two spots in a 4-3 scheme. But there are several factors that have kept the Vikings from scratching that itch the way they’ve gone out and addressed needs at quarterback, defensive end, nose tackle, cornerback, left guard and depth at receiver.
Let us count those factors:
1, The free agent market at linebacker is weak and/or aging.
2, The Vikings have seven linebackers under contract. Three of them – Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges – are young players the Vikings are high on. A fourth one – Jasper Brinkley – was re-signed before the start of free agency because the new coaching staff thinks he might be good enough to compete for a starting job or provide depth. Brinkley was a bust in Arizona last year, but given a limited role, he can be an acceptable downhill run-stopper.
3, The Vikings are looking for a difference-maker, a playmaker, a young guy with speed and instincts and a physical presence. The place you find those are relatively high in the draft, not on the street.
4, The Vikings are changing their defensive scheme under new coach Mike Zimmer. The staff is still figuring out how the different skill levels will match the new roles. And that includes Greenway, whose role for years has been a strong-side backer whose primary responsibilities were in coverage.
Here’s what General Manager Rick Spielman had to say about the linebackers when I asked specifically about the weak-side position, which appears to have Hodges, an unproven second-year player, atop the depth chart:
“I wish you could say you had 22 guys that you’re going to line up with and say that they’re all proven starters,” Spielman said. “That’s not the way the NFL is. You have to play these young guys and you have to get them ready to play and we have an unbelievable coaching staff that I know will do a great job of getting these guys ready to go.
“When you look at Audie Cole, he did a nice job when he came in at Mike [middle linebacker], he can also play the strong side. Hodges can cross-train because the strong side and the weak side. They’re talking about doing some things with Chad Greenway, and Jasper Brinkley can play some Mike and he can play some strong side.
“I think all of that stuff will sort itself out once these guys get on the field and once we get through the draft and figure out what the best combination is for these guys. All of these guy, we feel that they do have ability, most of them are able to cross-train between one linebacker position and another.
“It’s a different philosophy on the linebackers as far as what Coach Zimmer is going to use in the nickel situations and the dime situations that is a little different than what we’ve had here in the past. I’m excited to see how all of that comes out.”
Asked if the coaches were looking at moving Greenway to middle linebacker, Spielman said:
“I don’t know. That’s the coaches’ decision. I know he’s played on the weak side, he’s been in our nickel package and stuff. Like I said, they do a lot of things from a defensive side that’s a little different from what we’ve done in the past and once these coaches figure out what the skillsets are and once they get an opportunity to put their hands on these players to figure out what their best skillset there, they’ll figure out how to best utilize them on the field.”
In other news today …
. The Vikings confirmed the visit of offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse earlier today. Ducasse, a 6-5, 325-pound guard, previously visited Cincinnati. A second-round pick of the Jets in 2010, Ducasse never lived up to expectations. He has started only five games, four of them coming last season. Ducase leaving town without a deal isn't a surprise. The urgency to sign him was lessened over the weekend when the team agreed to a two-year deal to bring back starting left guard Charlie Johnson.
. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, who visited Winter Park last week, continues his tour of NFL teams. He reportedly left Dallas last night and is scheduled to visit with the Rams today.
. Overthecap.com reports that receiver Jerome Simpson signed for $1 million, including a $50,000 roster bonus and a $50,000 workout bonus. The site also has the Vikings $15.3 million under the salary cap, but that does not factor in guard Charlie Johnson’s recent deal.
. Zimmer is among the coaches at Florida State's Pro Day today.
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