In-house shopping may fill Vikings’ needs
The Minnesota Vikings entered free agency’s three-day negotiating period with their top two needs being a starting right defensive end to replace Jared Allen and a quarterback to serve as a bridge to the future.
Hours later, they had scratched both items off that to-do list by agreeing to terms with two of their own free agents.
Quarterback Matt Cassel, who went a respectable 3-3 during last season’s three-headed quarterbacking nightmare, signed a two-year deal worth $10 million. Everson Griffen, a freakishly athletic and versatile 27-year-old defender, received a $42.5 million deal over five years and $20 million guaranteed despite having started only one game in his four-year career.
After making those two moves and also bringing former Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley back after a one failed season in Arizona, the Vikings had a new to-do list and a much more patient mentality heading into the opening of free agency’s signing period on Tuesday.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill, but we want to be smart with how we use the money,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, whose team is believed to be more than $25 million under the league’s $133 million salary cap after re-signing Cassel and Griffen. “We don’t want to go crazy in this thing.
“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. 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.”
That’s a philosophy that general manager Rick Spielman rarely strays from. He did it last spring, going against his core rules of thumb when a desperate need at receiver led him to Greg Jennings, an older, high-priced player with a history of recent injuries.
This spring, Spielman and the Vikings went into the free-agent signing period needing starters at nose tackle, left guard and weak-side linebacker. But their highest priority remains cornerback, where the roster looks extremely bleak behind top corner Xavier Rhodes. Chris Cook, a career underachiever, isn’t expected to return and Josh Robinson, who failed and was injured last season in his first year as a starter, is more of a backup caliber player who isn’t suited to play over the slot in the nickel.
Cornerback is the one position that could tempt the Vikings to spend the most money in free agency.
The benchmark signing for corners this spring is the deal Green Bay gave Sam Shields. It averages about $10.5 million per year, which would be quite a leap financially.
Zimmer isn’t saying no, but he has been preaching patience in general.
“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 F150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it.”
n Re-signing Everson Griffen, not Jared Allen, was the Vikings’ top priority all along. So, to no one’s surprise, the Vikings chased Griffen hard before the start of free agency, signing the versatile 27-year-old defender to a five-year, $42.5 million deal that came with $20 million guaranteed. Meanwhile, on the same day, they talked with Allen and his agent and mutually agreed that his days in Minnesota, which included three first-team All-Pro seasons and a franchise-record 22 sacks in 2011, were over.
Griffen has started only one game in four seasons, but his combination of speed, size and athleticism made him one of the Vikings’ most valuable defensive players. He backed up both end positions, was a disruptive inside rusher from the tackle position in nickel situations and has lined up at linebacker when the Vikings would switch things up and shift to a 3-4.
“I’m going to rise to the occasion because that’s who I am,” Griffen said. “The Minnesota Vikings know that, and I’m ready to rise to the occasion and give them everything I’ve got.
“They’re going to use me; I haven’t been used, and it’s time. The money is always a good thing but at the same time I finally get to be used. Coach (Mike) Zimmer...coach Zimmer, yeah coach Zimmer is going to use me. The Minnesota Vikings are going to use me in every way possible. The only thing you guys can do is wait, just wait for this to erupt.”
n A week before the Vikings and Jared Allen mutually agreed to officially close the door on their relationship, new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer gave some strong hints that Allen wasn’t a fit for his defense.
Allen and Everson Griffen being on the opposite sides of 30 also played a role as well. But Allen is more of a one-dimensional player whose focus, like most right defensive ends, is rushing the passer. Zimmer stresses team concepts that begin with run responsibilities across the board. In his seven seasons as Bengals defensive coordinator, Zimmer had only two occasions when a player reached double digits in sacks. Allen has done that in seven consecutive seasons and isn’t shy about making that a priority.
Asked about Allen before the two sides had mutually agreed to part, Zimmer said, “He’s the free agent. He’s the one that would have to decide that he wants to come back and fit into what we do and how we do it. He has to decide how much money that needs to be due for him to buy into doing that. And we’re the ones that have to decide how much we want to pay him for that, too.
“In my opinion, Jared’s an extremely, extremely great football player who has had a fantastic career that, not only here, but elsewhere. I think it would be great for him to finish here, but I do understand the business part of all this stuff and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Like I said before, I like to work with great football players that want to fit in, and if he wanted to do that he would be a positive influence on this football team and continue to be on the franchise. If he doesn’t, then I’m happy for him. I really am.”
We’re going to get this thing going the right way and we’re going to continue to build it with a foundation and doing it the right way and we’re going to continue to do it the right way. But the first thing is getting the right guys in here and then continuing to build it correctly and not talk guys into coming back or overpaying in free agency or taking reaches.”
Strategy and personnel
n CORNERBACK: Free agent Chris Cook won’t be brought back, for good reason, and Josh Robinson can’t be counted on as a starter. Beyond Xavier Rhodes, the cornerback position is bleak.
n NOSE TACKLE: The Vikings’ defense hasn’t been the same since Pat Williams got too old in 2010. Zimmer stresses run defense and has no projected starter at NT after releasing Letroy Guion.
n LEFT GUARD: Charlie Johnson, the starter the past two years, was in decline last season and is a free agent. Jeff Baca, a sixth round draft pick last year, might not be ready for a starting role.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
n DE Jared Allen recorded his seventh consecutive double-digit sack season in 2013, but his age and one-dimensional skill set weren’t attractive to new coach Mike Zimmer, who puts more of a premium on stopping the run, even at right defensive end. Allen and the Vikings agreed that it was time to part ways.
n LB Desmond Bishop came over from Green Bay, but arrived in late summer, was slow to catch up and then tore an anterior cruciate ligament when he finally started to play well. His age and history of serious knee and hamstring injuries the past two years make it unlikely that the Vikings will have any interest.
n CB Chris Cook never lived up to his potential as a big, strong corner drafted in the second round in 2010. Injuries and off-field legal problems kept him off the field more than on it. He also never developed NFL caliber ball skills or awareness and leaves the Vikings with no interceptions in four seasons.
n NT Fred Evans was a decent backup, but not someone the Vikings ever wanted to rely on for more than a handful of snaps. They also won’t pursue him in free agency.
n QB Josh Freeman was a desperate 2013 in-season signing that failed. The Vikings cut their losses, choosing to re-sign the steadier Matt Cassel rather than pursue the younger, more physically gifted Freeman.
n LG Charlie Johnson declined in 2013 and hasn’t been deemed a priority in free agency even though the only other option at this point is Jeff Baca, a sixth-round draft pick from 2013. Johnson might still end up with the Vikings, but the team will look to upgrade first.
n LB Marvin Mitchell was little more than a special teamer until the team needed him to step in at weak-side linebacker to replace Erin Henderson, who was moved to the middle at the start of last season. Mitchell did nothing to stand out, but also had fewer opportunities because the Vikings took him out in their nickel defense, which they played more than half the time.
n WR Jerome Simpson had a solid season and showed flashes of being the deep-ball playmaker the Vikings were looking for. But a late-season DWI arrest, coupled with prior legal issues that led to his three-game suspension in 2012, have the Vikings looking elsewhere at this point.
n OT J’Marcus Webb was brought in early last season as a No. 3 tackle, but was unreliable and disappointing. Don’t expect the team to pursue him.
n WR Joe Webb was switched from quarterback to receiver in 2013 but wasn’t much of a factor in Bill Musgrave’s conservative offense. Despite his speed, size and athleticism, Webb was little more than a special teamer and blocking receiver. The Vikings don’t intend on using one of their receiver spots on the 2014 team.
n DT Kevin Williams spent 11 seasons as one of the better defensive tackles in team history. And that’s saying something on the franchise that gave the NFL the likes of Alan Page and John Randle. The Vikings haven’t ruled Williams out, but his age and the desire to get more out of his heir apparent, 2013 first-round draft pick Sharrif Floyd, make Williams’ return a long shot.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
n RB Matt Asiata (tendered at $570,000) will compete for the primary backup job to Adrian Peterson in training camp.
n C/G Joe Berger: UFA; terms unknown.
n QB Matt Cassel: Potential UFA; $10M/2 yrs.
n LB Larry Dean: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
n CB/PR Marcus Sherels: Potential RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
n DT Linval Joseph: UFA Giants; $31.5M/5 yrs.
n TE John Carlson (released).
n WR Greg Childs (released).
n RB Toby Gerhart: UFA Jaguars; $10.5M/3 yrs, $4.5M guaranteed.
n DT Letroy Guion (released).
n LB Erin Henderson (released).