NFC North: tom johnson

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the course of a Sirius XM Radio interview on Tuesday, in which he recapped his visits with the New England Patriots, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks, defensive tackle Kevin Williams cracked open the door for a return to the Minnesota Vikings.

Williams
Williams said his agent, Tom Condon, "recently had some more communication with the Vikings," adding, "They might be trying to ease back in the picture. We’ll know more maybe as the week goes on.” The 33-year-old had talked to the Vikings earlier this offseason about returning for a 12th season, though it appeared that possibility was dead when the Vikings signed Tom Johnson for their three-technique tackle rotation with Sharrif Floyd.

From here, it still seems a bit difficult to imagine the Vikings being the best fit for Williams, considering he'd have to learn a new system that asks three-technique tackles to engage blockers and play the run more than it gives them the freedom to get upfield. Essentially, that would be a different set of responsibilities than Williams had in the Vikings' old system, and the Patriots -- who hired former Vikings defensive line coach Brendan Daly -- could be a more appetizing option, particularly as Williams talks about his desire to play with a proven quarterback and that could give him a shot at the Super Bowl.

The Vikings still have about $7.75 million under the cap, though, and it wouldn't take much to sign Williams. If they're in search of some more depth at three-technique tackle, they might still have room for the six-time Pro Bowler. We should know soon whether Williams will continue his career with the only franchise he's ever played for, or if he'll move on to a new team.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jared Allen was the face of the Vikings' defensive line for the past six years, but not just because of how productive and colorful he was on the field. It was also because, from 2008-13, the Vikings' defense was rarely on the field without him.

Allen
As Pro Football Focus pointed out this morning, Allen played 6,284 snaps in his six years with the Vikings. His 90.8 playtime percentage last season was the lowest of his Vikings career, and he's suited up in 110 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the league among defensive ends.

That plan is all but guaranteed to change next season, thanks to Allen's departure and Mike Zimmer's history of a more egalitarian approach on the defensive line. In his seven years as the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator, he never had a lineman log more than 1,000 snaps in a season, and the only time a lineman went over 900 was last season, when Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap played 949 and 922 snaps, respectively. The Vikings, on the other hand, used Allen for 1,083 last year and Brian Robison for 989.

We say this, of course, with the acknowledgement that the Vikings played the second-most defensive snaps in the league last season, thanks to a unit that was among the league's worst at getting off the field on third downs. But Zimmer seems likely to involve more players on his defensive line, and he's got the bodies to do it; the Vikings have four defensive tackles in place (Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Fred Evans) and added a former starter to their defensive end group in Corey Wootton. It's also worth noting that in defensive coordinator George Edwards' two seasons with the Miami Dolphins -- where former Zimmer assistant Kevin Coyle is the defensive coordinator -- no lineman played more than 83 percent of the Dolphins' snaps.

Would some extra rest have helped Allen be even more productive in Minnesota? It's tough to say, and it would have been even tougher to convince the defensive end he should take it. But it seems highly unlikely Robison will see the same workload next season, or that Everson Griffen will wind up playing as much as Allen or Robison have in the past. Zimmer's had a history of trying to use multiple linemen to keep the group fresh. It's likely a big reason the Vikings have prioritized defensive line depth this spring, and it could lead to a noticeably different look on defense this fall.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Vikings made their final round of cuts Aug. 31, trimming their roster to 53, they had a nine-man group of defensive linemen that looked like this:

Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Chase Baker and George Johnson.

Williams

Griffen
The group was highlighted, as usual, by two productive pass rushers, but four of its nine players were over 30. The group lacked bulk up the middle and depth at the end of the group, and the Vikings were waiting on a breakout year from Griffen that never really came.

Six months later, after a sweeping set of changes precipitated by a new coaching staff, the Vikings' top eight defensive linemen currently look like this:

Robison, Floyd, Griffen, Evans, Linval Joseph, Corey Wootton, Tom Johnson and Baker, with a draft pick or two possibly coming.

Five players in that group will be 27 or younger by the start of the season. Robison and Evans will be the oldest at 31, and in Joseph, the Vikings have their first true road grader since Pat Williams.

It's a striking overhaul to a position that had been the Vikings' hallmark for years under Allen and Kevin Williams. This group still could be the identity of Mike Zimmer's defense, but it figures to be younger, nastier and tougher up the middle, befitting a defense that's designed to be structurally sound and stout against the run.

In some ways, this had been coming since last spring, when the Vikings drafted Floyd, decided not to pursue a contract extension for Allen and asked Williams to void the 2014 season on his contract while taking a $2.5 million pay cut in 2013. Both Allen and Williams sensed it at the end of the season, giving a handful of valedictory speeches in December press conferences and talking about how their relationship would continue once they were done playing together.

Allen and the Vikings decided to part ways before the start of free agency, and while general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings would keep the door open for Willliams, it seemed obvious the Vikings had other plans. Williams said Wednesday he hadn't heard from the Vikings in a week, and the team signed Johnson to add depth at the three-technique tackle position the same day. And then, to make the inevitable somewhat official, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday night he was even more sure his time with the Vikings was over.

It's a coldly efficient way for one of the Vikings' great defensive players to see his time with the team end, but it's the order of the NFL in 2014. The Vikings have swept through their defensive line remodel with little attachment to their past, and they've come out from at least the first phase of it with a markedly different look to the group. The ultimate success of their plan will depend on young players -- most notably Griffen and Floyd -- turning their potential into legitimate production, but at some point, the Vikings had to detach from their past and attempt going in this direction.
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.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Former New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Tom Johnson is at the Minnesota Vikings' team facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., for a physical today, and will sign a one-year, $845,000 deal that could pay him up to another $600,000 in incentives, according to a league source.

Johnson, who played defensive end in the Saints' 3-4 scheme, had interest from the Cowboys, Bears, Dolphins and Seahawks in addition to the Vikings, according to the source, but the Vikings and Cowboys stood out as the best fits for Johnson at three-technique tackle. Once the Cowboys signed former Bears tackle Henry Melton, the Vikings were an obvious match, the source said.

His deal with the Vikings will pay him a $645,000 base salary and a $100,000 roster bonus, in addition to signing and workout bonuses of $50,000 each. His incentives will be based on playing time and sacks, and will kick in at different tiers.

The addition of the 29-year-old Johnson, who's shown some effectiveness as a rotational player, again likely means that Kevin Williams' time in Minnesota is just about over. The six-time Pro Bowler said on Wednesday he's waiting to see what the Vikings do, and hadn't had any contact with them since last week. Williams said his chances of a return to the Vikings look like "slim pickings," and the way the team has added younger defensive linemen seems to signal they're headed in a direction that wouldn't necessarily be compatible with Williams, who will be 34 before the season starts.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints officially ruled out receiver Lance Moore (hand), running back Mark Ingram (toe), safety Roman Harper (knee), defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley (calf) and Tyrunn Walker (knee) for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

The only mild surprise on that list is Bunkley, who practiced on a limited basis the past two days. The others were all held out of practice all week. Cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip) and defensive end Tom Johnson (hamstring) are listed as questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.

None of the injuries should be too harmful to the Saints, who dominated the Miami Dolphins 38-17 last Monday night without Moore, Harper, Ingram, Bunkley and Johnson in the lineup. The Saints have so far proven to be deep enough in each position group to absorb those losses -- though they’ll be especially thin on the defensive line if Johnson is not back near 100 percent.

With Moore out last week, the Saints continued to rely heavily on top targets Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles. Backup receivers Kenny Stills and Nick Toon each played slightly bigger roles, with the rookie Stills catching a career-high four passes for 38 yards and Toon catching his first NFL passes for 18 yards on a key third-and-12 play in the first quarter. Tight end Benjamin Watson also caught his first touchdown pass since he joined the Saints this summer (a 4-yarder in the third quarter).

That was Watson's only catch in the game, though. And deep threat receiver Robert Meachem had zero catches. So even with Moore out of the lineup and quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 413 yards, the Saints still didn’t have enough balls to go around for everybody in their deep offense.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
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