Last spring, as both teams sought to rebuild their rosters from 2016 seasons that began with high hopes and ended in disappointment, the Vikings and Carolina Panthers engaged in a series of moves that functioned as a series of coincidental trades.
On March 9, the Panthers signed left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million contract that included $25 million in guaranteed money. The Vikings gave former Panthers tackle Mike Remmers a five-year deal worth $30 million March 10. That same day, the Panthers signed former Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson. And on March 11, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn turned down an offer to return to the Vikings, instead opting to rejoin the team that drafted him and signing a four-year, $17 million deal with the Panthers.
The moves were part of busy offseasons for both teams, and as the two clubs meet at Bank of America Stadium this weekend, the Vikings are closing in on a first-round bye at 10-2 while the Panthers are in the hunt for a playoff spot at 8-4. But as players on both clubs prepare for reunions this weekend, it’s worth noting how adroitly the Vikings have navigated replacing players it appeared they might miss.
A day after Kalil signed with the Panthers instead of accepting the Vikings’ offer to return, the team gave Riley Reiff a five-year deal worth $58.5 million, banking on the former Lions tackle’s ability to play on the left side after shifting to right tackle in Detroit. Reiff has given up only one sack and five hits on Vikings quarterbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, while Kalil has allowed five sacks and six hits for the Panthers this year.
Remmers, who is in his second tour with the Vikings after being released by the team in 2014, missed three games because of a concussion and a fourth because of a low back injury that will also keep him out this week. He hadn’t allowed a sack in eight games, though, and had given up just four hits on the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus.
And as impressive as the Vikings’ improvement has been on the offensive line, the way they have handled Munnerlyn’s departure is nearly as significant. At nickel cornerback, they lost a player who’d been an asset to their defense and found a way to replace him.
The Vikings tried to bring Munnerlyn back in free agency, and the cornerback said Wednesday the team offered him more money to stay than the Panthers eventually gave him to come back to Carolina. When Munnerlyn left, the Vikings gave the first shot at nickel corner to Mackensie Alexander, betting the 2016 second-round pick would mature after an uneven rookie season.
They eventually settled on a rotation of Alexander and 39-year-old Terence Newman, who is playing significant time in the slot after years as an outside corner. The Vikings often have used Newman when they are in nickel packages on first and second downs, leaning on his savvy as a run defender, before turning to Alexander on third downs.
The second-year corner intercepted the first pass of his career in the Vikings’ 38-30 victory over the Redskins on Nov. 12, and made a key play for his sixth pass breakup this season against the Falcons on Sunday, when he jumped in front of an out route to force an Atlanta punt near the end of the first half.
“Mackensie is a good athlete,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “He really, honestly is still learning the position. He’ll have moments where he won’t do what he is supposed to do all the way. But he’s getting a lot better with it. I think he’s starting to understand where his help is, when we have man or zone, different things. Understanding routes. I think [secondary coach] Jerry [Gray] has done a really good job with him, and with Terence as well. But he’s a good athlete and has good cover skills.”
Those tempted to play the we-didn’t-need-him game with Kalil and Munnerlyn would be wise to remember the Vikings tried to re-sign both players. Few things in the NFL are as binary as they might seem, and for both players, Carolina might have had a lure that Minnesota did not: a chance for Munnerlyn to return to the city where he still has a house, and for Kalil, an opportunity to play with his brother Ryan and make a fresh start after five uneven years in Minnesota.
But in a season that’s been all about the Vikings’ ability to adapt, they will have a chance to clinch the NFC North title on Sunday against two players whose positions represented two of the team’s biggest question marks coming into the season.
As Kalil and Munnerlyn exchange pregame pleasantries with former teammates, it’s worth noting how capably the Vikings have replaced each of them.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org