Vikings coach Mike Zimmer heads into Tuesday’s 3 p.m. opening of the NFL free-agency signing period with plenty of needs, plenty of money and apparently plenty of patience.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill, but we want to be smart with how we use the money,” said Zimmer, whose team is believed to be more than $25 million under the league’s $133 million salary cap. “We don’t want to go crazy in this thing.”
Going crazy isn’t a term often used to describe Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman’s approach to free agency, particularly the frantic and high-priced initial wave that plays out over the first few days. Zimmer, who’s looking to quickly transform a 5-10-1 team built around a once-in-a-generation, but soon-to-be-29-year-old running back, seems OK with that temperate philosophy.
“I think if we go out and spend a whole bunch of money now, we’d be upset two years from now because some of them didn’t work out,” Zimmer said. “So we’re going to be real diligent in how we approach this and making sure that not only is it best for next year, but best for the long run, too.”
Spielman will jump into the deep end on the rare occasion when a need is too strong to resist. Last year’s signing of receiver Greg Jennings was the prime exception to most of Spielman’s free-agency rules of thumb regarding age, injury history and top-dollar deals for other teams’ free agents.
Spielman prefers shopping for bargains that include one-year deals for young, hungry veterans who, for whatever reason, have to prove that their production can match their talent level. He also prefers plugging holes with his own pending free agents before free agency even begins.
Three days ago, the Vikings’ two biggest needs heading into free agency were an experienced quarterback to serve as a temporary bridge to the future and a defensive end capable of replacing Jared Allen. Not anymore. On Saturday, Spielman scratched both itches by re-signing quarterback Matt Cassel and defensive end Everson Griffen. Both are projected starters.
Meanwhile, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was brought back to the Vikings over the weekend after failing last season in Arizona. He doesn’t come in with a guarantee of starting, but his signing does help take middle linebacker off the list of needs at a time when that free-agent market is weak and/or old. The Vikings also brought in Jameel McClain, the former Ravens inside linebacker who was released last month, for a visit Monday.
That leaves the Vikings heading into free agency without solid projected starters at left guard, where Charlie Johnson is a free agent; nose tackle, where Letroy Guion was released and Fred Evans is a free agent; and weakside linebacker, where Erin Henderson was released and Marvin Mitchell is a free agent. At defensive tackle, the Vikings might re-sign Kevin Williams or let him walk so they can turn the job over to Sharrif Floyd, who was drafted in the first round for that reason a year ago.
The Vikings also have a strong need at cornerback, where the roster looks bleak behind Xavier Rhodes; and quality depth at defensive end, where Griffen spent four years as a versatile backup who could play either side, rush from the tackle spot and line up at linebacker.
During free agency’s three-day negotiating period, the Vikings reached out to two of the more high-priced young free agents who share a history with their coaches. One is Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, whom Zimmer coached as Bengals defensive coordinator. The other is Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, whom Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray coached as Titans defensive coordinator. Johnson, of course, is an unlikely possibility now that Griffen has been given the starter’s salary and role that Johnson covets.
Zimmer said familiarity with a former player is a bonus, but not a deal maker when dollars begin flying in free agency.
“There are several ways to fill [our] holes,” Zimmer said. “My thing [as a defensive coordinator] has always been play good team defense, not just be great players, but be good as a team. I do believe you can be real good, if you get the correct guys in there that buy into the system, that want to play for one another, that want to take ownership in something bigger than themselves.
“Everybody sees that Maserati and they want to go buy it and you know you probably shouldn’t. You should probably buy a Ford F-150, like I got. Because if you get the F-150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it.”
In a move to bolster their special teams first and depth behind strongside linebacker Chad Greenway second, the Vikings re-signed restricted free agent Larry Dean to a two-year deal on Monday.
Dean, who made the team as an undrafted rookie out of NCAA Division II Valdosta State in 2011, was second on the team with a career-high 18 special teams tackles in 2013.