NFL Nation: Everson Griffen



MINNEAPOLIS -- Much of his work came against the Arizona Cardinals' second-team defense Saturday night, so it's wise to use some measure of restraint when talking about Matt Cassel's performance in the Minnesota Vikings' second preseason game. But it's getting harder and harder to see anyone but Cassel beginning the season as the team's starting quarterback.

Cassel connected on 12 of his 16 throws, throwing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings' 30-28 win over the Cardinals. Cassel also scrambled three times for 30 yards and threw a strike to Kyle Rudolph over the middle for 51 yards.

It was the kind of commanding, decisive performance Cassel had hoped to deliver in two quarters of work, and while Teddy Bridgewater had an impressive night of his own, it seems like a matter of time before coach Mike Zimmer declares Cassel the starter.

Here are some other thoughts on the Vikings' second preseason game of the year:
  • It seems unlikely Zimmer will be happy with the Vikings' performance on a couple of long Cardinals drives, particularly on Arizona's first of the game. The Vikings allowed the Cardinals to march 93 yards in nine plays to start the game, giving up a 51-yard pass when Xavier Rhodes missed a tackle on Jaron Brown, and conceded a touchdown on a 19-play, 80-yard drive to begin the second half. That march took 10:06 off the clock, and featured two third-down and two fourth-down conversions.
  • Bridgewater, who admitted he'd been overthinking things this week, has to be feeling much better after an impressive second half that included a last-minute touchdown drive. He went 16-of-20 for 177 yards and two touchdown, directing an 11-play scoring drive that put the Vikings ahead in the fourth quarter and throwing a perfect fade route to Rodney Smith for the game-winning touchdown. On that drive, Bridgewater evaded a sack and found Allen Reisner while rolling to his right. He also threw a corner route that Adam Thielen should have caught for a touchdown.
  • Zimmer wasn't happy with the pass rush after the team's first game, and while the Vikings only had one sack (from Anthony Barr on the final play of the first half), they got more consistent pressure than they did against the Oakland Raiders. Defensive end Everson Griffen was particularly active, lining up at both left and right end as the Vikings tried a new nickel rush package that put Barr at right end and moved Brian Robison inside.
  • After allowing six sacks last week, the Vikings' offensive line surrendered only one Saturday. Bridgewater, who fumbled last week after holding the ball too long, did a better job of getting the ball out and moving in the pocket this week, and Cassel also evaded pressure on several occasions, particularly when the Cardinals' first-team defense was in the game. But it was definitely a step in the right direction for the Vikings' offensive line.
  • Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who was hit in the left calf by a stray bullet at a Minneapolis nightclub last Saturday morning, was on the field before the game, wishing teammates good luck as he wore a sleeve on his calf. Joseph hadn't been seen with the Vikings in practice all week.
  • The Cardinals' long opening drive in the third quarter meant the Vikings had limited time to work on offense in the second half, and it also meant third-string quarterback Christian Ponder didn't see a snap. Though stranger things have certainly happened, Ponder -- who was the Vikings' unquestioned starting quarterback at this time last year -- might have seen his final action in a Vikings home game; he'd be the third-string quarterback if he's on the roster this season, and he'll be a free agent after the season.

Vikings camp report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
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MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • Coach Mike Zimmer's fiery side was on display late in the afternoon practice after defensive end Everson Griffen jumped offsides in an 11-on-11 drill. Zimmer immediately called for the entire team to drop and begin pushups on the field. (I lost count but I believe it was 10.) "It was spur of the moment," Zimmer said. "The period before, a couple guys jumped offsides, and I got tired of it."
  • Veteran safety Chris Crocker, signed Monday, got some work with the first team Tuesday. Zimmer acknowledged he has long planned to bring in Crocker, who played for him during most of the past seven seasons, and envisions him as a facilitator of the defensive system to younger players. "I thought it would be good for him to be around," Zimmer said. "We've got a pretty young secondary, a pretty young defense. He knows the system well. I thought he would be in that defensive back room to help these guys understand exactly what I'm looking for. He's been with me for a little while."
  • That Crocker got work with the first team speaks to the Vikings' situation at safety opposite of Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton, who had been working with the starters, is trying to come back from a hamstring injury. Zimmer said Blanton's timetable appears more optimistic than once believed, but said: "Blanton's got to get back out here. He was looking good early. Now he had to get back out here and show what he can do."
  • The Vikings are beginning to prepare for Friday's preseason opener at TCF Bank Stadium. Zimmer planed to speak with to the team Tuesday night about the value of a home-field advantage. Temporary digs have not usually been kind to NFL teams, but Zimmer said: "Maybe we can be the first." Meanwhile, Zimmer indicated that tailback Adrian Peterson won't play. That sounds like a good plan. Peterson is healthy and doesn't need preseason work, whether or not the Vikings are installing a new offense.
  • The Vikings are scheduled for a walk-thru practice Wednesday morning from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. local time. Their primary practice will go from 3 p.m. to 5:10 p.m. local time.

Camp preview: Minnesota Vikings

July, 17, 2014
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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.

Vikings offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Minnesota Vikings' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Matt RourkeIt's been a long time since the Vikings had a run-stuffing nose tackle like Linval Joseph.
Best move: The Vikings needed a run-stuffing nose tackle as much as they needed anything else on their defense, and the signing of Linval Joseph gave them a big body for the middle of their defensive line. Joseph should provide a presence the Vikings haven't had since Pat Williams' time in Minnesota ended, and although his contract will pay him $31.75 million over the next five years, including $12.5 million guaranteed, it's structured in such a way that the Vikings would face minimal cap repercussions if they needed to cut Joseph as soon as 2016. He's just 25, and in an ideal world, he'll be playing nose tackle for the Vikings for the next five years.

Riskiest move: It's based on the Vikings' high assessment of his potential, but giving $20 million guaranteed to defensive end Everson Griffen after four seasons of rotational duty was a gamble. The Vikings could insert Griffen in Jared Allen's old left end spot, and while sacks are an incomplete measure of performance for a defensive end in Mike Zimmer's scheme, Griffen will have to generate some pressure and be stout against the run. He has the talent to do both, but for him to be worth a contract that pays him like one of the league's top defensive ends, Griffen will have to showcase that talent more frequently than he's done so far in Minnesota.

Most surprising move: In an offseason that followed a fairly sensible shopping list, there weren't too many out-of-character steps among the Vikings' decisions. But the team opting not to add another receiver was worth at least a second glance. The Vikings could have plucked one in the middle rounds of a deep draft, giving themselves another option at a position where No. 3 receiver Jerome Simpson is coming off his second arrest in three years. Instead, the team will hope that Simpson is available for the better part of the season, third-year man Jarius Wright can become a more consistent part of the offense, and practice squad holdovers like Adam Thielen can add something to an offense that should push the ball downfield more than it has in the past.

Quarterback plan in place: The Vikings started their offseason by giving themselves some pre-draft insurance at quarterback, signing Matt Cassel to a new two-year, $10 million deal after he opted out of the contract he'd signed in 2013. They also traded back into the first round to take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, meaning their succession plan is in place at the position, whether that happens sometime this year, in 2015 or in 2016. If the Vikings do want Bridgewater to sit for a year, they're making a leap of faith that Cassel can be reliable for a full season in Norv Turner's offense after starting just 23 games from 2011 to 2013. If he's not, the Vikings could have to decide whether to put Bridgewater on the field or see whether they can get through a few games with Christian Ponder. But Cassel was mostly solid in six starts last season, and with both him and Bridgewater in the building, the Vikings have more reason to feel comfortable at quarterback than they've had in a while.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the sternest test of Mike Zimmer's ability to remake the Minnesota Vikings' defense will come in an 18-day stretch from Sept. 14 to Oct. 2, when the Vikings will play four consecutive games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, effectively staking their playoff hopes on their ability to stand up to some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

In many ways, the Vikings will have to fix two of their biggest problems from last season in the first month of the season if they're going to have any shot at relevance. They didn't win a road game last season (their victory in London was technically a "home" game), and they'll start the year against a St. Louis Rams team that went 5-3 at home last season before playing games at the Superdome and Lambeau Field in the next five weeks.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap
AP Photo/David KohlMike Zimmer's defense made things challenging for Aaron Rodgers last season.
But the Vikings' struggles against top quarterbacks, if left unchecked, will be an even more pervasive problem in the first part of the season. The Saints, Packers, Falcons and Patriots were the league's second-, sixth-, seventh- and 10th-best passing teams last season, and the Vikings come out of that stretch with an Oct. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, who threw for the third-most yards in the league. Essentially, the message of the Vikings' 2014 schedule is this: Fix your defense and fix it quickly.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Zimmer's had some success slowing down the quarterbacks the Vikings will face -- particularly Rodgers. The Packers quarterback faced the Cincinnati Bengals twice while Zimmer was their defensive coordinator, and lost both games. Last year, he hit 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bengals, and was sacked four times. And while he threw for 311 yards against the Bengals in 2009, he was sacked six times and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 31-24 loss.

Brady also faced the Bengals twice in that time, with unimpressive results. He went 1-1 in a pair of games against Cincinnati, completing 43 of his 73 passes for 455 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. After picking them apart in a 2010 win, he had arguably his worst game of the season against them last year, completing just 18 of his 38 passes for 197 yards and an interception in a 13-6 loss.

Brees and Ryan both fared well in their lone efforts against Zimmer's defense, each beating a 4-12 Bengals team in 2010. They were two of just four quarterbacks to surpass 290 yards against Cincinnati that season, posting 313 and 299, respectively.

Zimmer's defense employs plenty of man coverage, mixed with some zone principles, and counts more heavily on cornerbacks winning one-on-one matchups than the Vikings' old scheme did. That seems like a good fit for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and Captain Munnerlyn should help the Vikings' defense, as well, but secondary depth is paramount to surviving matchups with teams that will put as many receivers on the field as the Vikings' early-season opponents will.

The other thing to watch is how effectively the Vikings can pressure the top quarterbacks they'll face, particularly with some of Zimmer's creative blitzes. The Bengals didn't bring extra pressure after Brady and Rodgers all that often last year -- on just 12 and 11 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but what's worth noting is just how much they rattled those two quarterbacks. Brady had just a 2.2 QBR against the Bengals' blitzes last year, and Rodgers' QBR was only 8.0, as he was forced into checkdowns and didn't complete a pass of longer than 8 yards against the blitz. Considering how lethal those two quarterbacks have been against the blitz in their careers -- to the point where many teams don't try to send extra pressure -- Zimmer's ability to throw them off is impressive. He did it well against Matthew Stafford last season, too, holding the Lions quarterback to just 33 yards and a 5.0 QBR on 13 blitzes.

The key variable to all this, of course, is talent, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings' personnel is as effective in Zimmer's scheme as what the Bengals had last season. But the additions of Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the development of Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the health of safety Harrison Smith should help. If Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can coax more out of players like defensive end Everson Griffen and figure out the Vikings' linebacker situation, they'll likely receive credit for it early, because the Vikings' progress will be graded against some of the toughest opponents they'll see all season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since free agency began on March 11, the Minnesota Vikings have been busily working the free-agent market to upgrade their defense. Those efforts, according to ESPN Stats & Information, have landed the Vikings among the league leaders in guaranteed money spent since the start of the new league year.

The Vikings have given out $50.2 million in guaranteed money since March 11, which is the fifth-most in the NFL. Only the Buccaneers ($74.3 million), Broncos ($65.5 million), Browns ($63.8 million) and Raiders ($51.0 million) have included more guaranteed dollars in new contracts.

That sum is the cost of doing business for a team that ranked second-to-last in the league in defense last season, but even though the Vikings have spent a sizable amount of money to sign players from other teams, the number itself shouldn't necessarily signal a departure from the draft-and-develop philosophy the team has employed the past three years, largely because of how much of the guaranteed money was wrapped up in the Vikings' new deal for 2010 fourth-rounder Everson Griffen.

Griffen got $19.8 million guaranteed as part of his five-year, $42.5 million contract, and he'll have been paid all of that money by the end of next season. The only money that would accelerate onto the Vikings' salary cap if they cut Griffen after 2015 is the $3.6 million in signing bonus proration left on his deal. The deal that includes the second-most guaranteed money -- for defensive tackle Linval Joseph -- has a similar structure. In that case, the Vikings gave Joseph $7.1 million in base salary guarantees, and a $2.4 million roster bonus they paid him last month, so the only cap charge they'd face by cutting him after 2015 is the $1.8 million of bonus proration left on his deal.

In total, the deals the Vikings gave out this spring would only include $5.73 million of dead money after the 2015 season. The pay-as-you-go method employed by assistant general manager Rob Brzezinski has allowed the Vikings to give out big contracts and stay out of salary cap trouble. Even the $45 million deal the team gave wide receiver Greg Jennings a year ago will only carry a $6 million cap charge after this season; the Vikings gave Jennings $17.8 million in guaranteed money, in the form of a $10-million signing bonus and guaranteed base salaries in each of his first two seasons. That deal came with a bigger signing bonus than most of the contracts the Vikings have done lately, but on a $45 million total deal, the Vikings' cap burden in the final years of Jennings' contract is still relatively small.

That structure will also allow the Vikings to be aggressive next year, should they choose to do so; with the cap possibly rising as high as $140 million, the Vikings could already have $30 million in cap space for 2015, before restructuring any deals or releasing any players.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings emerge from the busiest period of free agency with more than $11 million left in cap space, they can begin to turn their attention to the pursuits that will occupy the rest of that money.

Rudolph
They'll need roughly $6.5 million for their 2014 rookie pool, though as Overthecap.com estimates, they'd only need about $3.2 million in salary cap space for those players, assuming many of their cap numbers aren't among the top 51 contracts on the roster. The Vikings could also look in the coming months toward a contract extension for tight end Kyle Rudolph, who will be a free agent next spring, has said several times he wants to stay with the Vikings and reiterated that this week in a pair of remarks (to the St. Paul Pioneer Press and KSTP-TV).

A league source said there have been "no talks whatsoever" between the Vikings and Rudolph's agent about a contract extension, and even though the tight end wants to get a deal done this offseason, it might behoove him to wait. After missing eight games last season with a broken foot, he'd benefit from a full season in Norv Turner's offense (which has been famously friendly to tight ends) and could command more money with big numbers in 2014. The Vikings haven't been in the mode of signing their players to extensions before the final years of their contracts, anyway; they got Brian Robison's four-year deal done last October, and waited until just before free agency to sign Everson Griffen this spring and Phil Loadholt last year.

But while it's probably too soon to assume things will heat up between the Vikings and Rudolph, it does seem like a good possibility the Vikings will reward the former second-round pick for a big season. The team cut John Carlson this spring, further cementing Rudolph's status as their top tight end, and the Vikings have few other major free agents next spring; guard Brandon Fusco could be in line for a new deal, but players like wide receiver Jerome Simpson, defensive end Corey Wootton, safety Jamarca Sanford and fullback Jerome Felton (who can opt out of his deal after next season) would be relatively affordable to keep, if the Vikings did indeed want to retain them.

With a big season, Rudolph might be able to get a deal along the lines of the one the Baltimore Ravens gave tight end Dennis Pitta last month. Pitta, who was drafted a year earlier than Rudolph and caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 before getting hurt last season, got a five-year, $32 million deal, with $16 million guaranteed. While there's nothing developing between Rudolph and the Vikings in terms of an extension yet -- and there might not be quite as soon as the tight end might like -- he's in a good spot to produce and get rewarded for it.
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.
Jared Allen and Julius PeppersAP PhotoIt will be interesting to watch Jared Allen and Julius Peppers face their old teams this season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The subplots behind the roster moves -- among teams that have lived on intra-division player hopping over the last five years -- are particularly juicy.

Jared Allen jumps from the Minnesota Vikings to the Chicago Bears, just four days after Julius Peppers emigrates from the Bears to the Green Bay Packers? We sure do love our star-player-faces-his-old-team melodrama up here in NFC North country, and even by the lofty standards of a division that gave us Favre vs. Rodgers in 2009 and the hottest existential question of 2013 (who is Greg Jennings?), this week's game of musical chairs between pass rushers created intrigue. After all, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Jennings never got to hit their former teammates on the field.

But behind the flurry of roster moves lies three teams with distinct defensive problems, and three disparate approaches to solving them. How each strategy pans out could have a large hand in untangling the NFL's most mediocre division a year ago.

The Vikings had lived for years on a defensive line anchored by Allen and tackle Kevin Williams, who were named to 10 Pro Bowls between them in Minnesota. But when that foundation aged, and the arrival of coach Mike Zimmer brought a new approach to the 4-3 defense this winter, the Vikings decided they needed to revitalize the position more than they needed to give Allen a new contract before he turned 32. Instead of retaining Allen, they gave $20 million guaranteed to 26-year-old defensive end Everson Griffen, who has so far delivered production mostly in flashes.

The Packers, decimated by injuries in 2013 and forced to generate much of their pressure by bringing extra rushers, needed a player who could give blockers something to think about other than linebacker Clay Matthews. They gave Peppers a three-year, $30 million deal, with plans to add linebacking duties to the defensive end's resume and hopes that Peppers could learn a new role in a 3-4 defense at age 34.

And the Bears, who couldn't get to the quarterback or stop the run in 2013, let Peppers and Henry Melton walk and pivoted to Allen, giving him a four-year contract worth up to $32 million and crossing their fingers he could be a complete player at age 32 and beyond.

All three strategies carry considerable risk, but all three teams had substantial incentive to make changes. Zimmer's defense called for Vikings linemen who would be stout against the run before chasing quarterbacks, and Allen didn't fit that profile. The Packers and Bears were 30th and 32nd in the league in quarterback pressures, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and both teams were among the league's worst at getting to the quarterback with four pass rushers.

What's more, all three teams have central figures on offense who aren't getting any younger. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson turned 29 earlier this month, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will be 31 in April and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers turns 31 in December. If some of the changes seem rash, it's because keeping the status quo probably carried greater risk.

Still, the moves should command headlines as much because of their boldness as the players they involve. The Vikings, Packers and Bears are all gambling they've got the best way to fix an anemic defense -- the Vikings by reinventing their defense, the Packers by trusting an aging player can reinvent himself and the Bears by believing a veteran pass rusher needs no reinvention. How their respective strategies work could swing the NFC North race in any number of directions next season, which might ultimately be the most compelling outcome of this week's moves.

But next fall, when Peppers is bearing down on Cutler or Allen is trying to corral Peterson? Well, we'll still have fun with that, too.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Of the many young players on the Minnesota Vikings' roster who earned playing time and performance bonuses from the NFL for their work last season, right guard Brandon Fusco topped the list.

Fusco earned an extra $237,060.74 for his work last season, giving him the biggest share of the Vikings' $3.46 million total distribution, according to figures released by the NFL management council. The total amount is negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players, and while every player gets at least a small bonus, the system is designed to reward low-salaried players who see the most playing time.

For a team like the Vikings, that meant a number of players saw big boosts to their paycheck; Fusco made just $594,167 last season, and he started 15 games.

See the NFL's full list of performance-based pay distributions here.
On the eve of free agency two weeks ago, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

Only three of the original 15 remain unsigned as free agency enters its third week. One of them, former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, could remain that way for a while because of his neck injury.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released shortly after free agency opened. He signed with the Packers on March 15.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed in the last week:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Trying to come back from neck fusion surgery, Finley remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks during free-agency's first week. According a report in the Green Bay Press-Gazette over the weekend, the Seahawks failed Finley on his physical during the visit, leaving his status in doubt.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year, $4 million contract.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: After going unsigned during the first week of free agency, Jones signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Raiders. The deal was similar to the three-year, $9.6 million deal he signed with the Packers three years ago.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Was weighing an offer from Seattle, where he has visited twice since the start of free agency. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys that could become a four-year deal if the team exercises an option after the first year.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Signed a three-year, $9 million with the Atlanta Falcons after the Bears decided not to pursue an extension with the kick return specialist.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.
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 -- The Vikings' pursuit of former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson began just after the start of the free agency negotiating period on March 8. It was fueled by an obvious connection between Johnson and new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who had been Johnson's defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

Griffen
Johnson
The Vikings, however, finished a five-year, $42.5 million deal with Everson Griffen in the early morning hours March 9, and Johnson had a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Tampa Bay in place just before the start of free agency. Zimmer said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he "lost" out on Johnson because he wanted to be closer to his Selma, Ala., home, but added bringing back Griffen was the Vikings' first priority.

"Michael is a very Southern, country kid," Zimmer said on KFAN-FM in the Twin Cities. "It had nothing to do with football. He wanted to be with me, and I think that was the struggle he was going through -- whether to be with me in Minnesota or close to home. I lost.

"I don't want to give the impression that Michael Johnson was the guy we were going after and Everson was the second guy. We felt like Everson was a guy that, his career is starting to go up and he was the guy that we really put our eggs in his basket first. If it got too out of hand, money-wise or something like that, we were going to move on Michael."

The Vikings would have had to get creative, both with their scheme and their finances, to get Griffen and Johnson. It's hard to envision a scenario in which they would have landed both, but it seemed like they knew fairly early in the process that Johnson wanted to stay home, which probably allowed them to hammer out the Griffen deal in short order. The team had been talking with Griffen's camp in general terms about a new deal for months, but things got serious late on the night of March 8 and early in the morning of March 9.

As we discussed earlier in the month, it was an interesting twist to see Johnson sign with Tampa Bay (where former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is the defensive coordinator) while Griffen stayed in Minnesota with Zimmer, but if Johnson was always itching to play closer to home and Griffen wanted to stay in Minnesota, things might have worked out for both players anyway. Time will tell how the deals worked out for both teams.

Free-agency review: Vikings

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
9:00
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Munnerlyn
Most significant signing: The Vikings filled two major holes on defense last week, adding former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph and former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. As important as both will be to the roster, Munnerlyn should help solve one of the Vikings' biggest problems from last season. He can line up at slot cornerback on third downs, where teams routinely targeted Josh Robinson last season. Munnerlyn also gives the Vikings the kind of scrappy tackler against the run they had for years in Antoine Winfield.

Most significant loss: Jared Allen will be the Vikings' most high-profile departure, but it's difficult to tell yet how much that will affect the team. New coach Mike Zimmer's system wouldn't have featured Allen the way he'd been used over the past six years in Minnesota, and the Vikings should have their starting defensive line in place with Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Joseph and Brian Robison. Still, it will be strange not to see Allen lining up at right end in a Vikings uniform this fall.

Griffen
Biggest surprise: It's been clear for some time that the Vikings wanted to re-sign Griffen, but the value of his contract -- which puts him among the highest-paid pass-rushers in the league -- was something of an eye-opener. Griffen will get $20 million guaranteed as part of his deal, though the Vikings put all that guaranteed money in the first two years of the deal. Griffen's best year in the NFL came in 2012, when he posted eight sacks in a part-time role, and he's yet to become the kind of dominant force the Vikings are paying him to be. The contract is a gamble on potential, but the Vikings are obviously confident in Griffen's ability to fulfill it.

What's next: The Vikings still need help at linebacker, though general manager Rick Spielman sounded confident in his young linebackers last week. They remain in contact with former Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton after hosting him on a visit last week, and they will bring in Jets offensive lineman Vlad Ducasse for a visit this week. It's also possible the Vikings look at a corner, and they'll still be in the hunt for a young quarterback come draft time.

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