NFC North: Jasper Brinkley

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings hadn't blocked a punt since New Year's Day 2006, in Mike Tice's final game as head coach. That was three head coaches and two special teams coordinators ago, and it certainly hadn't happened in Mike Priefer's time with the Vikings.

But headed into Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, Priefer felt the conditions were ripe for that to change.

He'd seen some things in the Panthers' punt protection schemes that made him believe the Vikings had a chance to get to punter Brad Nortman, and when time came for the Panthers' second punt of the day, it didn't even take a terribly aggressive punt block call for Priefer to be proven right.

The Vikings went with a rush-return call that sent three players -- wide receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Jasper Brinkley and safety Andrew Sendejo -- up the middle of the Panthers' formation while the rest of the Vikings prepared for a Marcus Sherels return. The idea was to slip pressure past long snapper J.J. Jansen and force personal protector Thomas DeCoud to make a quick decision. When Thielen came clean through the line to Nortman, he got so close to the punter he had to block the ball with his hands to keep it from hitting him in the face.

"There was a return off of it; it wasn't like we knew we were going to block it," Thielen said. "The coaches did a great job of putting us in the right position, and really, I don't have to do much. I just kind of do my job and make a block."

Thielen corralled the loose ball, slipped two tacklers and raced into the end zone for a 30-yard score that would stand as the longest punt block return TD in Vikings' history for about a half-hour. Two possessions later, the Vikings kept their base defense on the field for a fourth-and-5 from midfield to guard against a fake punt, but Priefer put Panthers tight end Ed Dickson in a similar bind to DeCoud's. He could block defensive end Brian Robison or Brinkley as both swung around the right end of the Panthers' line, and when Dickson barely chipped Brinkley on his way to Robison, the linebacker swatted down Nortman's punt to set up a 43-yard Everson Griffen score.

It was a stunning turn of events in the first half of the Vikings' 31-13 win on Sunday, one that helped the team make history on its way to a big halftime lead. The Vikings became the first team since the Detroit Lions in 1975 to return two punts for touchdowns in one half, and just the fourth since the AFL-NFL merger to score two punt block TDs in the same game.

The design of both plays was similar, in some senses, to the double-A gap blitz the Vikings often use on defense, which forces blockers to make quick decisions and uses confusion to create opportunities for sacks. Priefer talked again on Sunday about how he has more freedom to be aggressive under coach Mike Zimmer than he's had under some head coaches, though the Vikings' charges on Sunday were confined to one area of the Panthers' protection scheme.

Two of them worked, and they created opportunities for a rare achievement.

"We have a lot of core players here that believe special teams is important," Priefer said. "We've got a head coach that supports us with meeting time, walk-through time and practice time, and he allows me to make those calls. In years past, I've coached with different head coaches that don't want to be quite as aggressive. We were aggressive on punt team [on Nov. 16 against Chicago] with the fake punt; we were aggressive on punt rushes. That really helps us do some things."
MINNEAPOLIS -- When he surged through the Carolina Panthers' line, blocked Brad Nortman's punt, recovered the ball and raced 30 yards to the end zone, Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen had carved out a spot for himself in the annals of team history.

For about a half hour.

[+] EnlargeAdam Thielen
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltAdam Thielen returned this blocked punt 30 yards for a touchdown.
Thielen's 30-yard blocked punt return TD -- which was the longest in Vikings history and their first since Oct. 12, 1986 -- was eclipsed 29 minutes later by the 43-yard touchdown Everson Griffen scored off Jasper Brinkley's blocked punt. The two TDs gave the Vikings a 21-3 lead over the Panthers in one of the more unusual fashions you'll see.

We already mentioned Thielen's TD was the Vikings' first off a blocked punt in 28 years. Griffen's block made Sunday the first time since Dec. 11, 1983, that the Vikings have blocked two punts in the same game.

When was the last time they had two blocked punt TDs in the same game, you ask? It's never happened. In fact, the last time the Vikings had two blocked punt TDs in the same season was 1970, when Ed Sharockman scored twice that year.

Heck, the last time any team had two blocked punt TDs in the same game was Sept. 30, 1990, when the Kansas City Chiefs did it against the Cleveland Browns.

When that happened, Thielen was 39 days old.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is just the fourth time in NFL history a team has scored two touchdowns off blocked punts in one half. The last time it happened was Sept. 21, 1975, when the Detroit Lions did it against the Green Bay Packers. The other instances were back in 1920 -- the league’s first season -- by the Chicago Cardinals (vs. the Detroit Heralds) and the Rock Island Independents (vs. the Muncie Flyers).
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Though his explanation of the moves didn't suggest the Minnesota Vikings have their strong safety and middle linebacker positions completely settled, coach Mike Zimmer did confirm Robert Blanton and Jasper Brinkley will be the respective starters at those positions Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.

Blanton
Blanton and Brinkley had been stationed atop the Vikings' depth chart at their positions, and it seemed likely each would start heading into the team's regular-season opener. Zimmer said Blanton, who missed part of the preseason with a hamstring injury, got the job in part because "he probably made less mistakes than anybody. Zimmer also said the Vikings would continue to evaluate their decisions on a week-to-week basis, but both players have specific traits that gave them a chance to keep starting jobs for now.

For Blanton, it's his coverage skills. He played cornerback in college, working in the same secondary as Harrison Smith, and briefly moved to slot cornerback when injuries ravaged the Vikings' depth last season. The Vikings will ask their safeties to handle receivers in man coverage this season more often than they used to, and Blanton's experience as a cornerback should make him more useful in this defense.

"He's always just had a nose for the ball," Smith said. "He just makes plays wherever you put him: corner, safety, he's made a ton of plays on special teams since he's been here. ... The safety who has a lot of experience covering man-to-man, that's kind of an added bonus."

Against a Rams team that figures to run the ball to help starting quarterback Shaun Hill take over for the injured Sam Bradford, Brinkley makes sense as the Vikings' middle linebacker. The Vikings could still use Audie Cole in passing situations where they want to stay in their base defense, but the Rams' game plan might lend itself toward the Vikings using Brinkley more often this week.

"Jasper is a little bit more of a thumper in the running game,” Zimmer said. “[St. Louis] has got a good running game. I think their offensive line does a nice job in run blocking. So I think it will be a good match for him.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- Though Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wouldn't reveal his starters at strong safety or middle linebacker when he was asked about them on Monday, the Vikings' unofficial depth chart would suggest little has changed at those two positions.

The Vikings listed Jasper Brinkley as their starting middle linebacker and Robert Blanton as their top strong safety before their Week 1 game against the St. Louis Rams, keeping both players in the same spots they occupied throughout the preseason.

Depth charts are worth about as much as the paper they're printed on, of course (and in this case, we're looking at an electronic version of the chart), but the listing at least suggests the Vikings haven't changed their thinking on the two positions since the end of the preseason.

Brinkley figures to come off the field in passing situations, and his strength against the run keeps him ahead of Audie Cole for now. And if Blanton can show the instincts in coverage that led the Vikings to put him in their first-team defense during organized team activities and minicamp, their safety concerns might be alleviated for now, especially against a Rams offense that could sputter with Shaun Hill replacing Sam Bradford at quarterbakc.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's probably wise to use some degree of filter when viewing the Minnesota Vikings' third preseason game as a facsimile of the real thing, given how skeptical coach Mike Zimmer was about the idea of the third game being a dress rehearsal for the regular season. But on a night where the Vikings played their starters well into the third quarter, we can glean a relatively solid impression of where the team is going with a few roster decisions.

We'll have a more complete overview of the Vikings' roster in our latest weekly roster projection on Monday, but for now, here are three takeaways from the Vikings' win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night:

[+] EnlargeTom Johnson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsTom Johnson appears to have carved out a role for himself as a rotational player on the Vikings' D-line
Tom Johnson appears to have a key role on the defensive line: The former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle wasn't a high-profile pickup when the Vikings signed him this spring, but his explosiveness looked like it could help the Vikings at 3-technique tackle (outside shade on right guard). Through three preseason games, Johnson has shown he'll fit on the Vikings' roster. He's seen regular playing time as an inside pass-rusher in the Vikings' nickel package, and had two half-sacks on Saturday night. He shared a sack with Anthony Barr in the Vikings' first preseason game, and had two quarterback hits against the Chiefs. Johnson played 32 snaps in the game -- two more than Sharrif Floyd -- and appears here to stay as a rotational player on the Vikings' line.

Special teams, not receiver, might cement Adam Thielen's spot: Zimmer is fond of saying, "The more you can do, the more valuable you are," and wide receiver Adam Thielen has taken that to heart in the preseason. He'd earned attention during the Vikings' offseason program and training camp as a receiver, but he's done more to make an impression on special teams in preseason games than he has as a wideout. He had three punt returns for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener, also registering a tackle for a 4-yard loss in that game, and showed great patience on a 75-yard punt return on Saturday. The Vikings haven't gone much deeper than three receivers with their first-team offense -- it's even been hard for Jarius Wright to find a role -- and if the Vikings wind up keeping just five receivers, Thielen's utility might put him in over Rodney Smith, who's also had a solid preseason and still could make the roster, especially if Jerome Simpson is suspended. If it's a decision between those two, however, it's hard to see the Vikings letting Thielen go. "He just keeps fighting and fighting," Zimmer said of Thielen. "He's got a lot of heart, and obviously, I like guys with a lot of heart. He seems to get better and better, and he makes plays. That's important."

Middle linebacker is still up for grabs: The closest competition in the final week could be at safety -- where Robert Blanton and Chris Crocker look like the favorites over a cast of other veterans -- or the third cornerback spot, where Josh Robinson's injuries have left plenty of playing time for Marcus Sherels in a role that's essentially a starting job, given how much time a third cornerback is on the field. But the one we've got our eye on is the battle for the middle linebacker spot, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole continue to battle. Brinkley started the game on Saturday, but he and Cole alternated series throughout the night, to the point where both were still playing into the fourth quarter with the Vikings' reserves. Cole got 33 snaps on Saturday, Brinkley got 27 and both players bring a different skill set; Brinkley is more forceful against the run, while Cole's size and instincts make him a better fit in pass coverage. Of any battle on the roster, this one might go down to the end of camp -- and even beyond, if the Vikings decide to tinker with their lineup during the season.

Camp preview: Minnesota Vikings

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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NFL Nation's Ben Goessling examines the three biggest issues facing the Minnesota Vikings heading into training camp.

Quarterback: This will be the biggest storyline surrounding the Vikings in training camp until head coach Mike Zimmer settles on a starter. Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have pledged to hold an open competition during training camp, though the race really figures to boil down to two quarterbacks: veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who both got a significantly larger share of snaps during the Vikings' OTAs and minicamp than Christian Ponder. Bridgewater was impressive in his first work with the Vikings this spring, but unless he's clearly the best of the Vikings' quarterbacks in training camp, Cassel figures to start the season as the quarterback. The Vikings re-signed Cassel so they wouldn't have to rush a young quarterback, and in the process, they created a situation in which they can afford to be patient with Bridgewater. If he's the best man for the job, it doesn't seem likely Zimmer will wait to play him. But if he's not fully ready by the end of camp, there's nothing forcing the Vikings to play the rookie.

Remaking the defense: The Vikings committed $20 million in guaranteed money to defensive end Everson Griffen and guaranteed another $16.95 million to secure the services of defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. But until training camp, when players put on pads, cornerbacks play press coverage and there's actual contact at the line of scrimmage, it's difficult to assess where the Vikings are in their effort to rebuild a defense that allowed more points than any other unit in the league last season. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr only had a minicamp with the team as classes at UCLA kept him out of the team's OTAs, but he'll be a prominent figure as the Vikings plan to use the 6-foot-5 linebacker in several different ways. With questions at linebacker (does Jasper Brinkley start in the middle?) and in the secondary (is Josh Robinson good enough to get significant playing time at cornerback?), the Vikings will have plenty to figure out on defense.

New roles for Peterson, Patterson: At age 29, Adrian Peterson is intent on cruising along with his career at a time when most running backs his age start to break down. In Norv Turner, Peterson has a new offensive coordinator who is intent on using him differently. Peterson will be more involved in the Vikings' passing game this season, as Turner and Zimmer seek to convert some of his carries into receptions, giving him more room to work in the open field and making him less likely to take a pounding. Turner also has big plans for second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whose emergence late last season made many wonder why the Vikings waited so long to make him a big part of the offense. Patterson, who played mostly at split end last season, moved to different spots during the Vikings' offseason program, and Turner seems interested in getting the explosive receiver the ball as much as he can; general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL scouting combine in February that Turner already had designed about 10 plays for Patterson. If the Vikings can turn him loose in Year 2, he could emerge as one of the NFL's premier playmakers.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A look at the highlights from the first day of the Minnesota Vikings' mandatory minicamp on Tuesday:

1. Loaded for Barr: The Vikings got first-round pick Anthony Barr on the field for the first time with their full team on Tuesday, after he graduated from UCLA over the weekend, and head coach Mike Zimmer didn't hesitate to try out some of the different ways he wants to use the linebacker. Barr was at the strong-side linebacker position the Vikings expect him to play, but he also lined up as an edge rusher on some third downs. At 6-foot-4, he's taller than defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, and if he can rush from the line of scrimmage, the Vikings can present a number of different looks to confuse opposing offenses, especially when Griffen's versatility enters the equation.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsFirst-round pick Anthony Barr participated on the field on the first day of Vikings' mandatory minicamp.
2. Robinson returns: Cornerback Josh Robinson was back on the field on Tuesday, after missing the Vikings' organized team activities with a muscle pull. He was also back at an outside cornerback position, following last year's failed experiment at slot cornerback. Robinson got plenty of snaps in the Vikings' first-team defense on Tuesday, and could wind up playing in the nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside.

3. Quarterbacks look sharp: The Vikings ran plenty of play-action and bootleg plays on Tuesday, and all three of their quarterbacks had a successful afternoon practice. Matt Cassel missed just one of the nine throws he attempted in 11-on-11 and was 5-for-5 in 7-on-7 work. Teddy Bridgewater was 15-for-17 in 11-on-11 action and 4-for-5 in 7-on-7, and Christian Ponder hit all four throws he attempted. Ponder again got fewer snaps than Cassel or Bridgewater, but he looked good in what he was asked to do. "Everyone's getting reps with the ones and twos," Ponder said. "I'm not getting as many reps as the other guys, but I'm trying to take full advantage, and we'll see what happens. I don't know how long the evaluation process is going to be. I'm hoping it goes into training camp and preseason games, but we'll see."

4. Jennings impresses: Wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed the Vikings' open OTA last week because of a charity event, caught four balls on the first day of minicamp, and saved his best for last, reaching out for a one-handed grab over the middle on a throw from Cassel in 7-on-7.

5. Middle linebacker plan emerges? The Vikings used Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway and Michael Mauti at middle linebacker on Tuesday, noticeably keeping Audie Cole on the outside after Cole played the middle at the end of last season. Brinkley has gotten more first-team work than anyone else in the middle, so far, but Zimmer cautioned not to read too much into that. "We have to line them up somewhere when we go, but I don't look at this guy is the favorite or that guy is the starter," he said. "(Brinkley)'s lined up with the first team right now, but I don't know, once we get him in practice and games and the things that prepare us for games and for the season, that will determine who lines up there on Sept. 7."

6. Safeties still limited: Jamarca Sanford was able to do a little more work after missing OTAs with a muscle injury, but the Vikings were mostly using Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Antone Exum and Kurt Coleman, with Blanton often pairing with Harrison Smith in 7-on-7 drills. Safety Andrew Sendejo was still limited with a back injury. Tight end Allen Reisner sat out, and running back Joe Banyard was a limited participant. Matt Kalil and Linval Joseph were again limited after knee and shoulder surgeries this offseason, but Zimmer said he expects both to be ready for training camp.
MINNEAPOLIS -- For the third straight year, the Minnesota Vikings' draft was marked by a bold first round, as the team traded back into the first round to take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater after selecting Anthony Barr ninth overall. The rest of the Vikings' draft, however, was all about projection, which means immediate draft grades -- like the one ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Vikings on Sunday -- could be underwhelming.

Kiper gave the Vikings a B-minusInsider for their efforts over the past three days, wondering why they didn't do more to address their middle linebacker situation or add depth at receiver. I'll admit I was a tad surprised not to see the Vikings add a wideout, given how many solid receivers were available in this draft, and there are still going to be questions about the Vikings' linebacker group despite the addition of Barr. But cornerback was the Vikings' biggest defensive need on the final two days of the draft, and Kiper thought sixth-rounder Kendall James could be a good value pick. The Vikings have two young middle linebacker candidates in Audie Cole and Michael Mauti, in addition to Jasper Brinkley, and I'm not sure how much more another late-round linebacker would change the situation there. Gerald Hodges, a fourth-round pick a year ago, could also help at outside linebacker, and I liked the seventh-round pick of Georgia Tech's Brandon Watts, who seems like the kind of speedy linebacker that might fit well in Mike Zimmer's defense.

As we discussed yesterday, the Vikings bet on upside with their approach to this draft, and the return on their 10 picks will probably take several years to realize (especially since their top pick, Barr, has only played linebacker for two years). But as Kiper wrote, the grade on the Vikings' draft could look much higher in a year or two, and the ability of this group to improve the Vikings' defense will matter much more than the immediate reaction to what the team did this weekend.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our review of the Minnesota Vikings' recent draft history today, with a look at how the team did in 2009:

First-round pick: No. 22 (Percy Harvin, WR, Florida)

Number of picks: 5

Total Draft AV: 109 (T-3rd; Green Bay was the best with a 136 AV)

Highest player AV: Harvin, 39 (4th; Green Bay's Clay Matthews was the best with a 50 AV)

Harvin
How they did: The 2009 draft, at this point, looks to be one of Rick Spielman's best with the Vikings. He gambled on Harvin when character concerns dropped the dynamic receiver to No. 22, and reaped the benefits both through an electrifying player and a trade package that delivered cornerback Xavier Rhodes (and a third-rounder in this year's draft) when the Vikings finally decided keeping Harvin was untenable. Second-rounder Loadholt has turned into a fixture at right tackle, fifth-rounder Jasper Brinkley is back for his second tour with the Vikings at linebacker, and seventh-rounder Jamarca Sanford has made contributions both as a special teams player and a starting safety.

Pivotal pick: Harvin's failed drug test at the NFL scouting combine had put his draft stock in jeopardy, but the Vikings spent enough time with him before the draft to become convinced they would be able to work with him if they selected him with the 22nd overall pick. He certainly presented some difficult situations for the team in his four seasons with the Vikings, but he proved himself to be a one-of-a-kind talent that could still fetch three draft picks in return when it became clear the Vikings were going to part with him last spring. Even after Harvin clashed with two head coaches, battled migraines and missed nearly half a season with a sprained ankle, it would be tough argue the Vikings weren't better off by rolling the dice on him.

Best pick: As dynamic as Harvin was, Loadholt is the one who could provide the most value in the long run. He's been an important part of the Vikings' offensive line, particularly as a run-blocker, has started all but two games since the team drafted him with the 57th overall pick, and signed a four-year contract with the Vikings just before the start of free agency last March. He's likely to remain on the team's offensive line for years to come.

Worst pick: Third-round pick Asher Allen is the only one who is not still in the league, and the only one the Vikings would probably say didn't work out. He'd started 21 games in three seasons for the Vikings, but had battled concussion issues and abruptly retired before the 2012 season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It has been fairly clear from the Vikings' early forays into free agency that shoring up the defensive line was among the biggest priorities for new coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen before the start of free agency, gave former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph a five-year deal on the day the market opened, and on Thursday, they added two more free agents to build the depth of the group.

Wootton
Wootton
The second of those two, former Chicago Bears lineman Corey Wootton, signed a one-year deal with the team on Thursday night, his agent Mike McCartney announced on Twitter. The 26-year-old end is coming off hip surgery, but seems like a solid fit in Zimmer's system; at 6-foot-6 and 271 pounds, he's got a similar lean, long-armed build to Michael Johnson, and has also played defensive tackle for the Bears. He had 7.5 sacks in 2012, starting seven games that season, and gives the Vikings a versatile reserve who's also, at the moment, the tallest defensive end on their roster.

Wootton also is the proprietor of a fairly significant footnote in Vikings -- and NFL -- history. The Vikings will play their next two seasons at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, where they played one game against the Bears after the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010. Wootton was a rookie that season, and got the first sack of his career that night, on what turned out to be the final play of Brett Favre's career. When Wootton took Favre down, he banged his head on the frozen field, sustaining a concussion that would usher him into retirement.

The Vikings have now signed six free agents from other teams: Wootton, Joseph, former Saints lineman Tom Johnson, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Chargers cornerback Derek Cox and Cardinals linebacker Jasper Brinkley (who's returning for his second tour with the Vikings). All six are defensive players, three are defensive linemen and four are playing on one-year deals. There's been a clear strategy to remake the defense to suit Zimmer's scheme, and with the exceptions of Joseph and Munnerlyn, the Vikings have done it with few long-term commitments.

We won't know for months how much Zimmer can use the pieces to improve the league's worst scoring defense, but the Vikings' free-agent strategy has been clear and decisive. The team had just over $13 million in cap space left before signing Wootton, and we're mostly in the bargain phase of the free-agent period at this point, so it's hard to see more splash signings. But the Vikings have added some youth to their defense, and they're betting on Zimmer's ability to put together a cohesive product out of those pieces. There have been teams with more high-profile signings than Minnesota, but the Vikings have moved efficiently through their shopping list.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Vikings began contract negotiations with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, they were initially looking for a longer deal than the three-year contract worth up to $15 million that they eventually gave him.

Munnerlyn
Munnerlyn liked the Vikings, had heard good things about them from former college roommate Jasper Brinkley, but had another reason for wanting a shorter contract: He was essentially betting on his own ability to get more money down the road.

"[I wanted] to get another contract before I’m 30," he said. "That was the key -- just to go out here for three years and see if I can win them over a little bit more, get an extension after Year 2 or something. Just try to go out here and make plays and win games."

Time will tell if that was the best strategy for Munnerlyn, but it does reflect a bit of the edginess that has gotten the 5-foot-9 cornerback from the seventh round of the draft to this point. Vikings fullback Jerome Felton, his former teammate with the Carolina Panthers, called Munnerlyn a "bulldog" in a tweet on Thursday, and Munnerlyn said he's patterned his game after former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who also stands 5-9 and played bigger than that.

"I’m tough and I’m feisty and I love getting after people," Munnerlyn said."That’s what I do. I get after people and I don’t shy down from nobody. I don’t care if you’re a 6-7, 6-8 lineman, I’m not shying down from. I going to try to make plays and I’m going to hit you."

If his feisty approach sounds similar to the one taken by new coach Mike Zimmer, Munnerlyn recognized it, too. "I think I’ve met my match. We’re a perfect match for each other, man. I’m excited about that," he said.

They'll both be counted on to help refine a defense that allowed more points than any in the league last season, largely because of its leaky secondary. Munnerlyn said he expects to start in the Vikings' base defense and move inside on third downs, which is what he said he'd done with the Panthers. And while he hadn't seen where the Vikings' defense ranked last season, he vowed it wouldn't stay that way for long.

"It’s just in the back end, I think we’ve just got to make more plays on the ball. I think that’s why they signed me and I’m sure they’ll probably some more guys or bring some more guys in or something," Munnerlyn said. "I’m sure with these signings and with these people they [brought] in, we’ll [be] ranked in the top 10."

Vikings re-sign LB Larry Dean

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
11:35
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings brought back another one of their free agents on Monday morning, re-signing linebacker Larry Dean, who has made his mark on special teams more than anywhere else during his last three seasons in Minnesota.

Dean
The undrafted free agent played all 16 games last season, forcing and recovering a fumble in addition to making 13 tackles. He made $555,000 last season, and was a restricted free agent headed into 2014.

As some of you have pointed out, the Vikings' linebacking group mostly consists of young, unproven players (Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti) and backup types (Dean and Jasper Brinkley) in addition to Chad Greenway and Audie Cole, who got some experience at the end of last season. The Vikings will bring in former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain for a visit Monday, and could pursue Bengals restricted free agent Vincent Rey, who wouldn't cost the Vikings a draft pick if they signed him. Otherwise, though, the Vikings could be relying on a young group and the upcoming draft, where a number of intriguing linebacker options could be there for the Vikings at No. 8.

Dean, though, was mostly brought back to help on special teams, and the fact he's been an important cog there is why he's got a new deal with the Vikings.
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.
Earlier this week, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Marvin Mitchell was the team's starting weak-side linebacker "as we sit here today." As tenuous as that plan sounded at the time, it's apparently the one the team is carrying into Sunday's season-opener against Detroit.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop said on Thursday that Vikings coaches told him he won't see much playing time on Sunday, with Mitchell set to start and Bishop not playing on special teams. The Vikings signed Bishop, who missed all of last year with a torn hamstring, to a one-year contract in June, and he looked stronger in the team's final two preseason games after missing the exhibition opener against the Houston Texans and turning in an uneven performance against the Buffalo Bills.

"(I'm) just waiting for my opportunity," Bishop said.

As much as the Lions throw the ball, Mitchell might not see a lot of playing time, either. Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway would be on the field in the team's nickel package, and if last year's two games against the Lions are any indication, the Vikings probably won't use more than two linebackers most of the time against Detroit.

In the first game last year, Greenway and Jasper Brinkley each logged more than 70 snaps, with Mitchell (the third linebacker that week while Henderson was hurt) only playing nine. Their linebackers got more playing time in the second game, with Greenway on the field for every snap, Henderson playing 73 percent of the team's defensive snaps and Brinkley seeing action on 52 percent of them. But defending the Lions starts with the pass, and that could mean more action for a third cornerback (like Xavier Rhodes) than a third linebacker, anyway.

What remains to be seen is how much Reggie Bush changes what defenses do against the Lions. Detroit threw the ball more than any team in the league last year, and Bush could see the ball almost as much in the air as he could on the ground. His presence might cause the Vikings to pay more attention to the run, but defensive coordinator Alan Williams said he doesn't see the Lions changing much.

"We can guess and try and predict what they’ll do with him," Williams said. "But we just make sure we have to go out and read our keys and focus on what we’re supposed to do, because if we hunt up too many snakes or too many ghosts, we won’t do anything. So we’ve got to look to see what they’ve done in the past with their backs and with their offense. I don’t think they’ll change a whole bunch from years past, last year or the year before that."
Football Outsiders, a statistics-based analysis service, has been producing division-by-division Insider files on remaining team needs. You'll need a subscription to read the entire NFC North post Insider, but below I've taken a few excerpts and written a few things about them.

Chicago Bears
Football Outsiders' issue: Receiver
Football Outsiders comment: "When we pointed to wide receiver as a major flaw for the current Bears early in the offseason, it was to the consternation of a lot of Bears fans who saw the offensive line as the larger issue. The problem is that Jay Cutler is a see-it, throw-it passer. He's still a solid quarterback, but he's never thrown receivers open on a consistent basis. That amplifies the Bears' receiving problems, and while scheming can create the occasional big play for Devin Hester, Eric Weems, or Earl Bennett, they can't defeat man coverage often enough to benefit Cutler."
Seifert comment: I'm not on board with describing Cutler as a "see-it, throw-it" passer. If anything, his arm strength and velocity give him too much confidence when it comes to throwing receivers open. (The phrase refers to putting the ball in a place that an otherwise covered receiver can catch it). I wouldn't argue that Bears' need for additional depth behind Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Bennett, but it's not because of any passing limitation on Cutler's part. There's just not much else behind them, especially as long as Hester works solely with special teams.

Detroit Lions
Football Outsiders' issue: Offensive line
Football Outsiders comment: "The strength of this line in recent seasons has been pass blocking, as Detroit's offense has finished in the top 10 in adjusted sack rate for the past three seasons, but that is likely to take a hit from this offseason's turnover."
Seifert comment: On the other hand, the Lions' new offensive line might be a better run-blocking group. That aspect has taken a back seat in recent years. I do think, however, that it's worth being concerned about putting your franchise quarterback behind a line with at least three first-time starters.

Green Bay Packers
Football Outsiders' issue: Offensive line
Football Outsiders comment: "[M]uch like the Lions, the Packers are putting their faith in their quarterback to evade the pass rush this season. Unlike the Lions, the Packers don't have a lot of personnel turnover in this unit, but, also unlike the Lions, they finished second-to-last in adjusted sack rate last season."
Seifert comment: There would be those who suggest that flipping the left and right sides of your line is football version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But every quarterback needs more help from their blind-side pass blockers. If you're going to have a strength and a weakness, it makes sense to shore up the left side first.

Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders' issue: Middle linebacker
Football Outsiders comment: "Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway can take care of things in Leslie Frazier's nickel fronts, but the base 4-3 is lacking a thumper after Jasper Brinkley's departure in free agency. (Of course, given Brinkley's broken-tackle rate, they probably were lacking one even if he had come back)."
Seifert comment: The Vikings clearly fell short in their attempts to find a long-term solution at this position during the offseason. They will give Henderson a chance to grow into it during organized team activities, but he was not their first choice. This position could well be atop their list of 2014 needs as well.

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