Last March, the Vikings decided to reward Everson Griffen with a lucrative contract instead of giving big money to fellow free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson.
A year later, the Vikings might end up with both of them.
On Thursday, a day after Johnson was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following just one season there, the Vikings scheduled a visit with Johnson, according to a league source. Johnson will be at Winter Park on Friday to meet with team officials.
One of those team officials will be Mike Zimmer, who coached the 28-year-old in Cincinnati for five seasons. Under Zimmer’s tutelage, Johnson — an explosive athlete in a 6-7, 270-pound frame — developed into a double-digit sack producer for the Bengals. He had a career-high 11 ½ sacks in 2012 and finished with 26.5 in a Bengals uniform.
Last winter, in Zimmer’s first offseason with the Vikings, the team had interest in Johnson. But they gave a five-year, $42.5 million contract to Griffen and Johnson joined the Buccaneers, who handed him $43.75 million over five years.
Griffen thrived under Zimmer, notching a career-high and team-leading 12 sacks while getting Pro Bowl consideration. Johnson, meanwhile, had minimal impact for the Buccaneers, whose defense was coordinated by former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. Johnson had just four sacks and 27 tackles, his lowest total since his rookie year.
The Buccaneers, hailed as one of the big winners of last year’s free-agency period in large part for landing Johnson, cut ties with the defensive end after one season.
It didn’t take long for the Vikings, whose only free-agent addition so far has been backup quarterback Shaun Hill, to reach out to Johnson and set up a visit. It is believed to be their first visit since free agency started Tuesday afternoon.
Beyond Zimmer’s fondness for his former third-round pick with the Bengals, the Vikings already had been monitoring the market for defensive ends. They tied for ninth in the NFL with 41 sacks a season ago, but just 5 ½ of them came from defensive ends without the surname Griffen.
Griffen and Brian Robison, who turns 32 in April, were the starters a season ago. The Vikings drafted Scott Crichton in the third round last spring with the hopes he could eventually replace Robison, but he rarely saw the field as a rookie. Veteran reserve Corey Wootton was a disappointment and is not expected to be back.
Johnson has predominantly been a right defensive end throughout his career, and that’s the same position that Griffen plays. But it seems reasonable that Zimmer would consider having both of those speed rushers on the roster as a good problem to have. Perhaps Johnson could replace Robison, who had just 4 ½ sacks in 2014, on passing downs.
While the Vikings will get the first crack at hosting Johnson, the Bengals and several other teams are reportedly interested in his services. It is unclear what kind of contract Johnson is seeking, but because he will still make $7 million from the Buccaneers in 2015 due to offsets in his contract, maybe he could consider a short-term prove-it deal.
The Vikings hope to get him to sign on the dotted line before leaving the building Friday and team him with Griffen, a scenario that would have seemed downright laughable this time a year ago.