EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – In their foray into free agency as the top decision-makers of the Minnesota Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman and first-year head coach Mike Zimmer filled enough holes throughout the depth chart to theoretically keep the Vikings from overextending to reach for a specific need in the draft.
And that’s good news for any fan or front-office executive still smarting from the Vikings’ face plant following a failed bid for a franchise quarterback when they dove headlong for Christian Ponder at No. 12 overall in 2011.
The team’s offseason moves and draft strategy hinged on the very first thing that Spielman and Zimmer set out to accomplish, which was re-signing quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel, who had opted out of the second year of the two-year deal he signed before last season, decided to return when Spielman and Zimmer convinced him that he would start out No. 1 on the depth chart and would not be subjected to the three-headed quarterback nightmare that ultimately played a primary role in the fall of former head coach Leslie Frazier and former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
“Re-signing Matt at the start of free agency is the key that allowed us to move on and focus our attention on filling other needs on defense,” Spielman said. “And now, because we have Matt, we do not have to draft a quarterback at No. 8.”
Cassel is not the team’s long-term solution at quarterback. But he showed enough poise and competence a year ago to potentially serve as the one- or two-year bridge to the future for the quarterback the Vikings select at some point in the draft. That leap of faith comes with some degree of risk. Cassel is just two seasons removed from leading the NFL in turnovers as a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Once Cassel was under contract, the Vikings moved quickly to address the defensive line, which Zimmer was most concerned about.
Zimmer and Spielman agreed to let longtime veterans Kevin Williams and Jared Allen walk away while infusing last year’s 32nd-ranked scoring defense with youth up front. The first move was re-signing Everson Griffen, who has been touted for years as a future star and Allen’s heir apparent. A five-year, $42.5 million deal means the Vikings were willing to pay Griffen more than lip service.
The Vikings also beefed up the interior of their defensive line with former Giant Linval Joseph, the team’s first legitimate nose tackle since Pat Williams retired after the 2010 season. Depth also was added up front with the re-signing of nose tackle Fred Evans and the signing of former Saints tackle Ted Johnson and Bears end Corey Wootton.
The Vikings also addressed the top of their depth chart by re-signing left guard Charlie Johnson and signing former Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who can start on the outside for the departed Chris Cook and slide down into the slot in passing situations. That’s something the Vikings sorely missed last season after they erred in releasing Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move last spring.
The biggest question marks as far as starting jobs heading into the draft are middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker. Jasper Brinkley, who was re-signed after one failed season in Arizona, returns to battle promising youngster Audie Cole at middle linebacker, while second-year pro Gerald Hodges, an unproven player whose only impact last year was on special teams, sits tentatively atop the depth chart on the weak side.
The Vikings still, obviously, have many needs. But even at linebacker, Zimmer and Spielman believe they have enough intriguing prospects to prevent them from passing up the best player available to take a lesser one at a position of need.
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