Minnesota Vikings: Alterraun Verner

MINNEAPOLIS -- It appears the Minnesota Vikings won't be bringing one of new coach Mike Zimmer's former defensive pupils to the Twin Cities.

Johnson
According to a league source, the team is out of the running for former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who posted 11 ½ sacks in Zimmer's defense in 2012 and figures to be one of the hottest targets when free agency opens on Tuesday. The source said the Vikings didn't turn down Johnson; rather, things just didn't pan out between the two sides.

The Vikings had expressed interest in Johnson shortly after the start of the free-agency negotiating period on Saturday afternoon, but finished a five-year, $42.5 million deal with Everson Griffen on Sunday morning. That seemed to reduce the chances of Johnson coming to Minnesota, since the Vikings had committed $33.15 million in guaranteed money to Griffen and Brian Robison in a pair of contracts over the past five months. The Vikings would still have the cap room to pursue Johnson and possibly use Griffen in a variety of roles, but for whatever reason, Johnson won't be coming to Minnesota.

At this point, the Vikings might be better served spending a good chunk of their remaining money on their leaky secondary. They had expressed interest in Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who is believed to have a number of suitors and could sign shortly after the start of free agency on Tuesday. The Vikings also could use a nose tackle, and brought in former Baltimore Ravens linebacker D'Qwell Jackson for a visit on Monday.

However they plan to stock their defense, they won't be doing it by bringing Johnson to Minnesota. We'll see how the rest of the Vikings' plan unfolds once free agency starts on Tuesday afternoon.
GriffenAP Photo/Jim MoneEverson Griffen's new contract could be followed by several more big moves by the Vikings.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings retained another one of their free agents on Sunday, giving defensive lineman Everson Griffen a whopping $42.5 million over the next five years, including $20 million guaranteed, according to a league source.

Now what?

In the past five months, they have signed Brian Robison and Griffen to contract extensions, committing a combined $33.15 million in guaranteed money to the players. That would seemingly set their defensive end tandem up for the next few years, with Griffen replacing Jared Allen on the line. But wait, there's more!

Once the NFL's three-day negotiating window opened on Saturday, the Vikings made it one of their first priorities to express interest in former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, and put themselves in the middle of what will likely be a heated race for Johnson. The 27-year-old stood out at right end for new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati, and the Vikings would have been working on Griffen's deal while calling about Johnson. But wait, there's more!

They also called about former Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played for new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray while he was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee and who has to be feeling emboldened today after news that Sam Shields signed a four-year, $39 million deal to stay with the Green Bay Packers. While the Vikings had more than $41 million in cap space last week, they have since signed Griffen and quarterback Matt Cassel, not to mention restricted free agent cornerback Marcus Sherels. They also reportedly brought back linebacker Jasper Brinkley for his second stint with the team, and according to a league source, they will host former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain for a visit on Monday.

While the pertinent question might be, "Who can the Vikings afford?" a better one might be, "On what does it make sense for them to spend their money?"

Without having seen the full breakdowns of the new deals yet, let's assume they account for about $16 million of cap space. That would still leave the Vikings with about $25 million of room for next season, with the cap likely to go up over the next few years. Paying both Johnson and Verner would be doable, but it could also chew up another $16-20 million in cap space for 2014, meaning the Vikings wouldn't have much leeway to sign tight end Kyle Rudolph to an extension, pursue other needs like a big-bodied nose tackle, or pay their draft picks. And in the case of Johnson, there is also the question of where the Vikings would use all their toys if they signed him.

Let's say Johnson came to Minnesota, filling the right end spot he played for Zimmer in Cincinnati. If Robison stayed at left end, the Vikings would be looking to move Griffen around again. He played 60.1 percent of their defensive snaps without starting a game last season, according to Pro Football Focus, but the Vikings aren't giving him $20 million guaranteed to use him in a part-time role. I think it's possible they could experiment with him at linebacker -- Zimmer likes his linemen to occupy blockers and allow his linebackers to run free, which isn't that different from a 3-4 scheme and could actually utilize Griffen's talents well -- but the previous regime tried a similar experiment, and the Vikings would have to see if Griffen could hold up in pass coverage. And with cornerback being a bigger need at this point, the Vikings might be better-served using their money to ensure they get an upgrade there.

It's also worth considering what Zimmer said last week, arguing for a reasoned approach to free agency while stating his preference for something with the dependability of a Ford F-150 over the flashiness of a Maserati. To this point, all the Vikings have done -- in fact, all they have been allowed to do by NFL rules -- is retain their in-house free agents. While they have expressed interest in two of the top defensive players on the market, that hasn't cost them anything yet. They could always clear more room by restructuring the contract of 31-year-old linebacker Chad Greenway, who is to make $8.7 million next season, and the Vikings still have enough room to do some contract gymnastics and sign a couple free agents while staying well under the cap, but for a team that has gone back to a draft-and-develop philosophy after years of shelling out for free agents, it might make sense not to get too carried away.

Could the Vikings still sign both Johnson and Verner? Yes. Would they have checked in with both of them so early, knowing Griffen's deal might get done, if they didn't have a scenario where they could land them? Probably not. But the size of Griffen's deal does mean the Vikings would have some pieces to fit in place if they were to get aggressive on the open market, particularly at defensive end.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings began the three-day negotiating window before the start of free agency by reaching out to a cornerback who could deliver an immediate jolt to the worst scoring defense in the league.

Verner
According to a league source, the Vikings called to express interest in Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played for new Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray while Gray was the Titans' defensive coordinator the last three seasons. Verner intercepted five passes last season and made his first Pro Bowl, and might be the top cornerback on the market this spring. He doesn't turn 26 until December, and would seem to be a natural fit opposite Xavier Rhodes in new coach Mike Zimmer's defense.

The fact that Verner is so highly regarded could mean the Vikings are in for a tough fight -- or will have to write a big check -- to land the cornerback, but Verner's connection with Gray could give the Vikings some leverage. The Titans decided not to put the franchise tag on Verner last week, and the cornerback could command a salary in the neighborhood of $10 million a season, but the Vikings, who had more than $41 million in cap room before signing Cassel, should have enough money to make a run at Verner.

They wasted little time expressing interest in him on Saturday. It's worth noting that general manager Rick Spielman called agent Eugene Parker to express interest in wide receiver Greg Jennings shortly after the opening of the negotiating period last year, and it's safe to assume the Vikings used a similar approach to begin the day, contacting the top targets on their free agent lists.

That Verner would be near the top of such a list doesn't seem hard to imagine.
Each week, I will field questions via Twitter with the hashtag #VikingsMail, then will deliver the answers over the weekend. 
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings started preparations for the 2014 league year, they always did so knowing they would have money to work with. The Vikings have just over $100 million in cap commitments heading into 2014, which is currently the sixth-smallest cap figure in the league. With Jared Allen's $17 million cap hit coming off the books, the Vikings could plan to have money to spend.

Allen
Now, it appears they might be able to plan on having a little more.

According to ESPN's John Clayton, the 2014 NFL salary cap is projected to rise to $132 million, up $9 million from 2013's cap figure. That would give the Vikings nearly $32 million to spend before 2014, putting them in position to improve their defense through a major free agent signing if they choose to do so.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson (who played for coach Mike Zimmer) and Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner (who played for new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray) could be candidates to join the Vikings. But the infusion of new cash, coming partially from the league's new TV deals, could also mean a more robust bidding war for free agents.

Assuming the cap figure is $132 million, 14 teams would have at least $20 million in cap room at the start of the new league year. There could be plenty of teams who would decide not to spend to the cap, but a $9 million spike in the cap certainly would provide players and agents with more leverage. The Vikings, though, are well-positioned for the 2014 market, and would be in even better shape if the cap figure winds up at $132 million.

The Vikings currently have just $1.78 million in dead money, which is the ninth-least in the league. They could clear more cap space by restructuring the deals of players like tight end John Carlson or linebacker Chad Greenway, but a cap figure that high might prevent the Vikings from having to redo many contracts.
Each week, I will field questions via Twitter with the hashtag #VikingsMail, then will deliver the answers over the weekend.
Each week, I will field questions via Twitter with the hashtag #VikingsMail, then will deliver the answers over the weekend.
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MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing on with our position-by-position outlook of the Minnesota Vikings' roster. Today: the defensive backs.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

2014 free agents: Chris Cook, Marcus Sherels (restricted)

Rhodes
The good: In a year where the Vikings' pass defense gave up more touchdowns than any in the league, it was tough to find bright spots in their secondary, but a few did emerge toward the end of the season. Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes thrived when the Vikings let him play more press coverage, and seemed to make a significant leap in December. Cornerback Shaun Prater also had an impressive interception against Philadelphia, and was at least serviceable once injuries depleted the Vikings' cornerback depth. Second-year man Robert Blanton moved from safety to nickel cornerback in December. And at safety. the Vikings found out they might have a solid contributor in Andrew Sendejo, who filled in for the injured Harrison Smith and looked like he might be able to push Jamarca Sanford for playing time in 2014.

The bad: Where do we start? At cornerback, the Vikings look like they might have something in Rhodes, and the 5-foot-10 Sherels competed as hard as anyone on the Vikings' roster. But general manager Rick Spielman made the decision to cut Antoine Winfield based on the belief the Vikings would get enough development from their young corners to survive, and that just didn't happen. In the first two months of the season, slot cornerback Josh Robinson was targeted more than any other cornerback in the league, and was struggling so much in September that the Vikings nearly re-signed Winfield before their Sept. 29 game in London. And Cook, who was supposed to be the leader of the group in his fourth season, had another rough season; Pro Football Focus had Cook getting beat for nine touchdowns, which tied the most in the league.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Sanford ($2.75 million), Harrison Smith ($1.94 million), Rhodes ($1.77 million), Sendejo ($866,666), Robinson ($811,250), Mistral Raymond ($669,483), Blanton ($622,763), Prater ($570,000), Robert Steeples ($495,000). It wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings make a run at a free-agent cornerback like Tennessee's Alterraun Verner, whom new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray coached as the Titans' defensive coordinator. The Vikings need to add some quality corners to their roster, and just for the sake of opening up roster space, it might lead them to cut some of the low-priced corners at the bottom of their roster.

Draft priority: High. The Vikings took Rhodes in Round 1 last year, and if there's a good cornerback available at No. 8, they could look in that direction if they can't find a quarterback. There are two things you absolutely have to be good at in today's NFL -- throwing the ball and stopping the pass -- and the Vikings weren't very good at either of them. Someone like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert could be a good fit for the Vikings in the first round.
Each week, I will field questions via Twitter with the hashtag #VikingsMail, then will deliver the answers over the weekend.

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