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 have agreed to terms on a one-year contract with reserve linebacker Marvin Mitchell, opening the door for the 28-year-old linebacker to return to the team for a second season. Mitchell originally signed with the Vikings as a free agent last spring after spending the 2011 season with the Dolphins and 2007-10 in New Orleans.
In 2012, Mitchell was used primarily on special teams but was thrust into a starting role in Weeks 3 and 4 with Erin Henderson sidelined by a concussion. He will continue to provide the Vikings with quality depth at the position.
According to team statistics, Mitchell was credited with four tackles on defense last season and five tackles plus a forced fumble on special teams.
The Vikings now have six linebackers on their roster with Pro Bowler Chad Greenway and Henderson as returning starters. Behind them are Mitchell, Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie and Larry Dean.
The team still is searching for a starting middle linebacker after Jasper Brinkley landed in Arizona two weeks ago via free agency.
It seems likely that with three of the top 52 picks in next month’s draft, General Manager Rick Spielman will select a middle linebacker in the top two rounds. The team has also not closed the door on the possibility of Cole, a seventh-round pick last year, working his way into consideration for a starting spot.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is the seventh unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Vikings this month. The others were right tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton, linebacker Erin Henderson, receiver Jerome Simpson, safety Jamarca Sanford and offensive lineman Joe Berger.
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
The NFL Combine officially gets underway Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And while the hype of the event will center mostly around the 40-yard dash times, bench press reps and shuttle runs of the more than 300 draft prospects invited to participate, some of the most significant action of the week occurs behind the scenes as NFL general managers and front office personnel meet with agents to begin discussing the approach of free agency.
At this stage, league rules state that teams are only allowed to talk with the agents of their own players. So with the Vikings needing to make decisions on 10 unrestricted free agents who are scheduled to hit the open market March 12, here’s our quick update on where we think things might be headed.
Today, we look at the team’s four defensive free agents. (And in case you missed it, here’s Monday’s look at the Vikings’ UFAs on offense.)
The preseason worries that Brinkley might be a major liability up the middle of the defense didn’t last long. After shaking off the rust in the preseason, Brinkley put his 2011 hip injury behind him and quickly flashed his strengths as a guy who can get downhill in a hurry and be a solid force against the run. His 117 tackles ranked third on the team behind Chad Greenway (191) and Harrison Smith (129). But it didn’t help that the 27-year-old Brinkley saw his effectiveness dip when he was asked to play extended snaps as the Vikings’ MLB in nickel packages. By season’s end Erin Henderson had reclaimed those responsibilities and Brinkley hadn’t lessened worries that he has deficiencies dropping in to coverage.
The likely move: In order to take the next step as a defense, the Vikings will need to find a number 2 linebacker who can fully complement Greenway. And they certainly need to find a guy who can have maximum productivity playing every down. So now, with Brinkley, Henderson and Marvin Mitchell all nearing free agency, the team faces the risk of losing three of its top four linebackers from 2012. It’s unlikely all three players will get away. In fact, it would not be a surprise if at least two of them are back. But the Vikings will also assess what could be available for them in free agency and the draft. In other words: the final decision on Brinkley depends on several other moving parts.
Déjà vu. Henderson was an unrestricted free agent last year, too. But it took 10 days after the market opened for him to re-sign with the Vikings. Henderson was peeved at that time that he hadn’t been offered a bigger pay day – by anyone. But the Vikings did the right thing in allowing the market to set the appropriate price. What resulted was a one-year deal with a base salary of $1.45 million. Henderson hoped to then have a big 2012 season and land a much, much bigger deal. So here we are again. Who knows how much last year’s foray into free agency has altered Henderson’s mindset? But he best be realistic with what he’s worth as he seeks out his best opportunity.
The likely move: Henderson’s 2012 stats: 112 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. He was solid overall. But Patrick Willis he is not. And he still suffers from moments when, in his own words, his eyes get too big and he tries to make plays that either aren’t his to make or just aren’t there. (See: the 5-yard touchdown catch Green Bay’s Greg Jennings made in Week 17 with Henderson inexplicably releasing Jennings to run uncovered into the end zone.) As we mentioned, Henderson is one of three Viking linebackers headed for free agency. So all three of their situations will in some way be intertwined. Brinkley and Henderson are both represented by Sportstars, Inc., which theoretically should eliminate some of the guesswork on that side of things for how the Vikings are viewing the pecking order. Right now, Brinkley may get the edge as a better bargain. But it’s also quite possible Henderson is brought back.
One of the surprise contributors of 2012 should see his hard work and high energy rewarded. After losing his starting job as a safety in training camp, Sanford returned to that role in Week 4 after Mistral Raymond dislocated his ankle. And the 27-year-old Sanford started the rest of the way – though he did finish the season sharing time with Raymond. He’s still a bit small (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) and sometimes deficient in pass coverage. But Sanford compensates for his handicaps with his work ethic.
The likely move: The Vikings’ long-term plan seems to be for Raymond to emerge full-time as the second starting safety alongside Harrison Smith. But Sanford’s value as dependable depth should not be taken for granted. While he may never ascend to be a major playmaker, he’s exactly the kind of player the Vikings coaching staff and front office wants to build around. He’s unselfish, he’s low maintenance, he’s passionate and he’s willing to invest to get better. Add into the equation that he’s always been a terrific special teams player and there has to be a spot open for Sanford to come back. In fact, safety and running back are probably the two positions the Vikings could afford to leave untouched as they transition from 2012 into 2013.
With Henderson sidelined by a concussion in September, Mitchell started twice and aided solid defensive performances in wins over the 49ers and Lions. He was also a dependable contributor on special teams. It’s no secret that the Vikings depth at linebacker right now is average at best. With Brinkley, Henderson and Mitchell all approaching free agency, that leaves Chad Greenway, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean and Audie Cole as the only linebackers signed for 2013.
The likely move: Of all the Vikings UFAs, Mitchell’s case shouldn’t draw much more than a shrug and an “Hey, either way” reaction. Like offensive lineman Joe Berger, if he returns great. And if he doesn’t, his spot shouldn’t be difficult to fill. Mitchell would love to come back if it’s the right situation. And he seemed to fit in well within the locker room in 2012. Henderson and Brinkley will be the first pieces of the linebacker puzzle that need to be figured out. But Mitchell would be an easy guy to keep in the mix.
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