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 three-day negotiating window opened on Saturday and the Vikings focused on two needs on Day 1: defensive end and cornerback.
The Vikings made contact on Titans unrestricted free agent cornerback Alterraun Verner, according to an NFL source. The Jets and Rams are among other teams to reach out to arguably the best cornerback in free agency. Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray was Verner’s defensive coordinator for the last three seasons in Tennessee.
Verner and Xavier Rhodes would be a significant upgrade at cornerback next year, but Verner won’t be cheap. Packers re-signed cornerback Sam Shields on a four-year, $39 million deal. Verner should receive more money than Shields in his deal.
The Vikings also reportedly reached out to Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, according to ESPN. They were among a number of teams to make contact to Johnson’s representation as he reportedly won’t return to the Bengals. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been Johnson’s defensive coordinator for the last five years in Cincinnati.
We’re still two days away until free agency officially begins, but the Vikings haven’t made much contact to some of the defensive tackles on the market. They only have one serviceable defensive tackle on the roster in Sharrif Floyd and will need a big nose tackle to pair up with Floyd on the defensive line. The Vikings have some interest in defensive tackle Derek Landri, who was cut by the Buccaneers last month, but it hasn’t materialized into an offer.
Landri is free to sign with any team at the moment because he was cut. He can make contact and schedule visits with teams unlike players that will become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday, such as Johnson and Verner, that must wait until after the three-day negotiating window.
Free agency begins on Tuesday, but you know the NFL. Nothing begins until there is some sort of buzz designed to hype the actual beginning of something.
So, for the second straight year, the league presents the three-day "legal tampering" period that kicks off at 11 a.m. today. This replaced the illegal tampering period that became too difficult to hide when multiple multi-million deals kept being announced .008 seconds after free agency opened.
Be careful over the next three days. Agents typically
manipulate dictate the story anytime teams with millions of dollars are chasing after players hoping to make as many of those millions of dollars as possible. And I'm not sure if you realize this, but agents don't always deal in non-fiction.
This year, team's have a record $133 million salary cap. And that number is expected to keep climbing. So a lot of players are about to be overpaid.
The Vikings are believed to have more than $35 million to spend even after agreeing to re-sign Matt Cassel. (Yeah, we bought the non-fiction tale that he was Houston-bound). The Vikings still need a quarterback in the draft, but for the purposes of free agency, scratch Michael Vick, Josh Freeman and any other QB off your list.
Here is one person's list of the Vikings free agency needs in order:
Defensive end: The Vikings don't have a starting right end on their roster. Free agency is the best place to get one by either re-signing Everson Griffen or chasing after Cincinnati's Michael Johnson.
Nose tackle: Again, the Vikings don't have a starter on their roster. And they need a Big Pat Williams-esque monster to set the middle of what was a pushover defense a year ago. The Giants' Linval Joseph would look real good.
Weak-side linebacker: I'd put this ahead of middle linebacker because this is the one linebacker spot where the current projected starter -- second-year pro Gerald Hodges -- is the least known comodity. The Vikings liked the guy enough to draft him. But we really don't know whether he can play anything but special teams. Of course, the market for UFA linebackers is weak, so don't get too excited.
Cornerback: This is a weakness, obviously, but I put it this low because the Vikings at least have Xavier Rhodes, a potential star, and Josh Robinson, who's still a work in progress and might develop into a good backup some day. But make no mistake, this is a high priority.
Middle linebacker: Not sure how the new coaching staff feels about Audie Cole and Michael Mauti. But given the state of the UFA linebackers, I'd stick with these two and look toward the draft. Restricted free agent Vincent Rey of Cincinnati wouldn't cost the Vikings a draft pick because the Bengals put the lowest tender on him.
Guard: Again, this could be a higher priority depending on what the new staff thinks of second-year guard Jeff Baca. Baca is a project, but the Vikings took him in the sixth round last year. With Charlie Johnson not expected back, Baca would be the starter on the left side. Right guard Brandon Fusco also hasn't taken the league by storm, but the Vikings have too many other needs to worry about him at this point.
Strong safety: Love Jamarca Sanford for his hard-working, overachieving mentality and locker room leadership. But if the Vikings can pair Harrison Smith with another top-shelf safety like a T.J. Ward, that would change the Vikings' defense immediately.
Wide receiver: There's prototypical talent (Cordarrelle Patterson), experience (Greg Jennings) and under-the-radar potential (Jarius Wright). But the Vikings could use more quality depth.
Backup running back: Not a priority in free agency because good backup running backs can be found late in the draft or among the rookie free agent pool. But worth shopping for at least.
Quarterback Matt Cassel, set to become an unrestricted free agent this weekend, is re-signing with the Vikings, according to two NFL sources.
Cassel's new contract is for two years. He would be considered a bridge to the next Vikings quarterback, likely a draft choice this season.
Jason LaCanfora of cbsports.com reported the deal was worth $10 million. For comparison sake, the Jaguars signed another "bridge" quarterback, Chad Henne, to a two-year deal on Friday that is worth $8 million, including $4.5 million guaranteed.
The agreement was first reported by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network (@rapsheet).
Cassel, 31, opted out of a two-year contract he signed with the Vikings in 2013 that was worth $7.4 million.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has said, during the offseason, that the team would like to sign a veteran quarterback in free agency and also draft a college quarterback.
Teams are allowed to begin negotiating with unrestricted free agents who weren't with their teams last year on Saturday, but cannot sign them until Tuesday.
Cassel last spoke with reporters after the Vikings’ season-ending 14-13 victory over the Lions in the last game at the Metrodome on Dec. 29, saying: “I love playing for the Vikings. The fan base here is absolutely amazing. The team was special. It was a great team to play for. I really enjoyed my time with my wife, myself, my kids, a great community and everything else that goes along with it. So, would I love to be a Minnesota Viking? Absolutely, without a doubt.”
The Vikings have the eighth pick in the NFL draft on May 8. Of the first 11 teams drafting, five others have a need at quarterback. Four college quarterbacks — Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Blake Bortles of Central Florida, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Derek Carr of Fresno State — are projected to be top-10 picks.
Cassel played in nine games for the Vikings last season, starting six. He was 25th in the NFL in passer rating (81.6). In a Dec. 15. victory over Philadelphia he had the best performance by a Vikings QB this season — 26-for-35 for 382 yards and two TDs.
Ponder is also under contract through 2014. The 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, he signed a four-year contract for $10.15 million that is fully guaranteed. His signing bonus of $5.8 million is paid out evenly over the four years.
Cassel was a backup to Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer at USC, and is the only modern-era quarterback who never started a college game to have started an NFL game.
The Patriots drafted Cassel in the seventh round (230th overall) of the 2005 draft, and he was a backup to Tom Brady for four seasons in New England. In 2008, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game, and Cassel played the rest of the season, leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record. With his four-year contract expiring, the Patriots gave him the franchise tag early in 2009 and traded him to Kansas City for linebacker Mike Vrabel and a second-round draft choice.
Cassel's big season with the Patriots paid off. The Chiefs signed him to a six-year, $63 million contract that included $28 million in guaranteed money. He started in 2009, and in 2010 made the Pro Bowl as Kansas City won the AFC West. He injured his hand after 10 games in 2011, however, and after starting in 2012 he eventually lost his job to Brady Quinn.
Marcus Sherels, a backup cornerback who was second in the NFL in punt returning last season, has re-signed with the Vikings. Terms were not announced for the two-year contract.
The former Gophers standout, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, played in 49 games for the Vikings over four seasons, starting seven at cornerback.
"It means a lot to me," Sherels said. "This is a place I wanted to be. This is a team that gave me a shot in the first place. I feel a sense of loyalty here, and I love being here. And love playing for coach Prief and all my teammates. I think we can build something special here."
His punt return average of 15.2 yards was second in the league last season behind Tandon Doss of Baltimore and set a team record. He had an 86-yard punt return against the Giants last season, the second punt return TD of his career. He also had his first career interception, against the Ravens on Dec. 8.
It was a big day for the Sherels brothers of Rochester as Mike Sherels was promoted to Gophers linebackers coach.
Carlson to Arizona
Tight end John Carlson, who was released by the Vikings on Wednesday, signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals, the team said.
Carlson was a high school standout in Litchfield before playing college football at Notre Dame. He was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract ($9 million guaranteed) by the Vikings in 2012. Ian Rapoport of nfl.com reported Carlson's deal with Arizona was worth $4.65 million.
Stumbled across a website headline asking the question "Is a free agent familiar to coach Mike Zimmer a good fit for Vikings?"
Experience tells me, "Um, duh."
Best example I can think of: Early 1990s, Cleveland Browns. A fella named Belichick showed up in Berea, Ohio with a system in mind and ideas for how to begin implementing it. He wasn't the eccentric genius he is today. In fact, he wasn't even 40 years old and he had never been a head coach before.
Even with his two Super Bowl rings as Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator with the Giants, the leftover players didn't care for this cold-hearted, mumbling, monotone man who would walk by them in the hallway and not even make eye contact. Two players -- Michael Dean Perry and Reggie Langhorne -- even walked off the practice field after clashes with Belichick.
It wasn't long before Belichick turned to the east and began Pied Pipering a line of former Giants to Cleveland. Joe Morris, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, Everson Walls, Mark Bavaro were among the loyal Belichickians who arrrived with some gas still left in the tanks. We used to ask Belichick when LT's -- the original LT (Lawrence Taylor) -- flight would arrive.
Even Phil Simms was so close to signing that the Browns actually called a press conference to introduce him. With reporters and TV cameras waiting in the interview room, last-minute talks broke down. After a lengthy delay, an introductory presser suddenly became a hurry-to-the-parking-lot-to-ask-Phil-what-the-heck-happened news scramble.
That's the long way of saying, yes, Zimmer will have interest in "his guys" from Cincinnati. It's only natural. No, his guys didn't win a couple of Super Bowls like Belichick's guys did over 20 years ago. But the Bengals sure have known how to play some solid defense under Zimmer.
Here are the Bengals to keep an eye on:
DE Michael Johnson: The unrestricted free agent who makes the most sense for the Vikings. He's 27, 6-7, 260 and has the skills to rush the passer but the dedication to play the run even if doing so results in fewer sacks. That last part ain't easy for right defensive ends to swallow. Jared Allen isn't coming back, folks. He'll be 32 and there are better teams who need pass rushers and will pay dearly for them. And, frankly, he doesn't fit the Vikings' new defense. In Zimmer's seven seasons as Bengals defensive coordinator, only two players -- DT Geno Atkins and Johnson -- have had double-digit sack seasons. Johnson had 11 1/2 in 2012. He had 3 1/2 last year, but, according to ESPN, he tied for first on the team in pass disruptions. And the Bengals were fourth as a team in that category.
MLB Vincent Rey: Remember him? His pick-six against Matt Cassel in Week 16 gave the Bengals a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, sparked the onslaught and essentially was the final boot the backside of Leslie Frazier's career as Vikings coach. Rey is a 26-year-old restricted free agent. But the Bengals put the lowest tender -- $1.431 million -- on him. That means the compensation is a pick in the round he was drafted. And since he was undrafted, there is no compensation in terms of draft picks. The Vikings need playmakers at linebacker. Rey knowing the defense would be a big advantage.
Other Bengals to watch: S Taylor Mays, 26; CB Brandon Ghee, 26; S Chris Crocker, 33. Yes, Crocker is an old player. But he's a big-time Zim guy. He came out of retirement the past two years when Zimmer needed help at the position. "I did it because I still felt I could play and because of Mike Zimmer," Crocker said during a phone interview shortly after Zimmer was hired by the Vikings. Asked if he'd be willing to come back a third time, Crocker laughed. "We'll see," he said. Crocker doesn't fit what the Vikings typically look for in free agency. But, hey, he's tight with the head coach and he believes in the system.
Zimmer's thoughts: Zimmer was asked by reporters on Thursday about how hard he'd be chasing after his Cincy guys. He said: "It always helps because of the communication, but it’s not relative. I had no one in Cincinnati [his first year]. Matter of fact, I was the only new coach I think when I went there on defense. I had no players that came with me at that time. It’d be nice, but it’s not imperative."
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