Vikings free agency preview: Defense

Chris Cook is a free agent after a troubled four years in Minnesota. Cook, 27, has the size and athleticism teams covet at the cornerback position and he had some moments where he showed potential. But he has dealt with injuries and off-field troubles in Minnesota.

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"Buyer beware."

That’s the mantra NFL teams try to stick to in free agency.

But when Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT rolls around and free agency opens, some teams won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll see immediate solutions for roster holes. They’ll see prices escalating, but the increase in the salary cap — with a $10 million increase this season — will have money burning a hole in their pocket and some won’t be able to resist.

The Minnesota Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman know better. They want to be patient in free agency and wait for bargains.

"We don’t want to go crazy in this thing," coach Mike Zimmer told reporters last week. "It’s important to me and Rick and the Wilfs also, that we build a really good foundation and continue to solidly build this thing until we’re a consistently good organization and team. I think if we go out and spend a whole bunch of money now, we’d be upset two years from now because some of them didn’t work out. So we’re going to be real diligent in how we approach this and making sure that not only is it best for next year, but best for the long run, too."

Zimmer also acknowledges the many holes, particularly on defense. Agreeing to terms to bring back defensive end Everson Griffen on Sunday was one step. Including Griffen, Minnesota could have as many as seven new starters on defense next season.

There are too many holes to likely fill simply by promotions and draft picks. The Vikings will have to find some players in free agency. And Zimmer has his own idea of what he wants his defense to look like.

"There’s a few more holes right now defensively than there are offensively and it’s also my expertise," Zimmer said.

Griffen should take one starting position, becoming a full-time starter for the first time in his career with Minnesota. Here’s where the Vikings might be looking elsewhere on defense:

1. Nose tackle

The situation: Minnesota is undergoing a major transition and not just because Zimmer is taking over and changing the defensive philosophy. The Vikings defense had gradually grown older over the years, particularly along the defensive line. While Spielman made cuts to get younger on offense and in the secondary, the front seven was still led by its longtime stalwarts. Change is coming.

The transition started last year, when Minnesota drafted Shariff Floyd in the first round of the draft. Floyd should become a starter for the first time in his career, slotting in at 3-technique. Zimmer’s scheme is built on strong defensive tackles, and a quality nose tackle is part of the equation. But the Vikings don’t have an immediate answer anymore. Behind Floyd, the only defensive tackles on the current roster are Chase Baker and Kheeston Randall, a free-agent signing after the season. Minnesota needs a big nose tackle to plug the run and hopefully get penetration in the backfield. The Vikings’ defensive line was at its best in the past when Pat Williams was manning the nose tackle spot.

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The incumbents: This is where the changes are happening. Minnesota released Letroy Guion last week and Fred Evans is an unrestricted free agent. Kevin Williams, the longtime three-technique, is a free agent, too, and will be replaced by Floyd. At least, that’s the way it looks now. Williams has said he’d be open to a return to the Vikings to end his career with one team. Zimmer even spoke about interest in a return last week.

"Kevin is an outstanding player — great," Zimmer said. "Those two guys (Williams and Jared Allen) are, in my opinion, so similar in the things that they’ve accomplished and things they’ve done. Just their legacy, really, it would be an honor for me to coach them. But at the end of the day, it’s still a business decision and it’s a financial decision for them. They’re running out of time in their careers and they need to do what’s best for their families, too."

There’s been some questions about if Williams would be willing to return if it meant a move to nose tackle. At 33 years old and 311 pounds, Williams has shown an ability to play nose tackle. Perhaps his best game of last season came when he filled in at nose tackle because of injuries. Guion’s limited production and the hope he could fill the nose tackle spot had been overcome by his contract. The Vikings saved $4 million against the salary cap by releasing Guion. Evans, who started three games last season, had actually outperformed Guion much of the past three seasons, despite Guion drawing the starting assignment.

The outside help: If Minnesota wants to think big and spend money to finally find a replacement for Pat Williams, the big name — and player — is Miami’s Paul Soliai. Soliai, 30, is a true nose tackle who could fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. A true run-stopper, Soliai is 340 pounds and started 15 games last year, finishing with 34 tackles. Soliai has started most of the past four seasons with the Dolphins. He will certainly have other suitors, including 3-4 teams looking to fill the middle of the defense. At 30, he’s not exactly young, either. But he would be the answer to the Vikings’ long hole at nose tackle.

There is no shortage of other defensive tackles on the market, though. It could be a position flush with some potential bargains. Soliai’s running mate in Miami, Randy Starks, 30, is another intriguing option, but more of a fit at three-technique. Soliai and Starks were in Miami last year, where new Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards was the linebackers coach.

A player who doesn’t come with a big name now, but could have teams paying big money to, is New York Giants’ nose tackle Linval Joseph. Joseph, at 322 pounds, is only 25 years old and someone to build around for the future. He can stop the run and also penetrate the offensive line. Minnesota has also been reportedly linked to Baltimore’s Arthur Jones, Oakland’s Vance Walker and San Diego’s Cam Thomas, per 1500ESPN. Green Bay’s B.J. Raji could continue the Green Bay-to-Minnesota pipeline.

The Vikings need starters and more depth all across the line, from end to tackle. Besides the above stated tackle needs, Griffen and Brian Robison will start at defensive end. They’re currently backed up by Justin Trattou and Spencer Nealy.

2. Cornerback

The situation: Minnesota returns two young players who started games last season, in Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson. Rhodes looked like an emerging star at the position, but he dealt with an ankle injury at the end of the season. Rhodes is surely being penciled into a starting spot and could really develop under the tutelage of Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray.

Robinson struggled last season as a first-time starter, but still has speed and athleticism and was a third-round draft pick just two years earlier. Robinson might be best suited as a slot cornerback in the long-term, though. The Vikings also have Shaun Prater, who showed well in limited exposure late in the season, Marcus Sherels, Robert Steeples and Kip Edwards. Robert Blanton, a college cornerback who moved to safety with Minnesota, played some slot cornerback at the end of last season.

The Vikings could have Rhodes and Robinson start, and very well could look to add more talent and depth at the position in the draft. But Minnesota could really use a steady, veteran cornerback to go with its young talent at the position. The Vikings missed having a veteran mentor in the secondary when they released Antoine Winfield at this time last year. A solid, starting-caliber veteran to pair with Rhodes and move Robinson and others down the depth chart still rates as a major need.

The incumbent: Chris Cook is a free agent after a troubled four years in Minnesota. Cook, 27, has the size and athleticism teams covet at the position and he had some moments where he showed potential. But he dealt with injuries, off-field troubles and ultimately never had an interception over four seasons. He never played more than 12 games in a season, starting 11 of his 12 games last season with a career-high 47 tackles.

Cook has said he wants to return. Zimmer sounds open to bringing Cook back, but didn’t appreciate Cook sharing such information. Cook tweeted he had talked with Zimmer last week and Zimmer responded when he talked to reporters a couple of days later.

"My impression is that he probably shouldn’t be tweeting our conversations," Zimmer said. "He’s a guy that — I’m trying to figure out how to say this without saying what I told him — he’s a guy that has some ability that I’ve had some luck in the past with, getting guys to play good that have ability. So if he comes back here then I’m going to coach him as hard as I can and see if I can get him to play good."

The outside help: The connection that won’t go away is Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner. Is there fire where there’s smoke? Everyone should find out in the opening hours of free agency on Tuesday. Verner, 25, won’t be cheap as he is one of the top cornerbacks available.

He reportedly has plenty of suitors and plans to make his announcement early after free agency opens. The price for cornerbacks isn’t low, either, after Brent Grimes and Sam Shields signed lucrative deals with their current teams before reaching free agency.

But maybe Minnesota has a leg up on the competition. Verner played for Gray the past three seasons with the Titans, when Gray was the team’s defensive coordinator. Verner has played in every game the past four seasons, but wasn’t a starter in Gray’s first year in Tennessee. He started all 32 games the past two seasons and finished last season with a career-high five interceptions.

Multiple reports say the Vikings have spoken with Verner’s agent during the three-day negotiating period. If there’s a spot where Minnesota might want to spend more money on a veteran player, it’s at cornerback and Verner is the player. Gray knows Verner well enough that the team should either be confident in spending the money, or staying away completely, depending on Gray’s views. A loaded free-agent market at the position include Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Captain Munnerlyn, Charles Tillman, Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond, Tarell Brown, Aqib Talib, Nolan Carroll and Antonio Cromartie among others.

3. Outside linebacker

The situation: Minnesota is looking at two new starters at linebacker, but the most pressing need is on the outside. Currently the only outside linebackers, aside from starter Chad Greenway, are Gerald Hodges and special teams standout Larry Dean.

Hodges was a fourth-round draft pick last year but didn’t get much of a chance to play outside linebacker, despite the Vikings’ need at the position and rotation that included Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop and Erin Henderson. Hodges played mostly special teams, where Dean has kept himself on the roster without getting much time in the defense. Audie Cole, a potential middle linebacker, could possibly play outside, as well.

The incumbent: Minnesota lost Jasper Brinkley in free agency last year and moved Erin Henderson to the middle. The move didn’t work for the team or the player. Henderson struggled in the move, proving he was better on the outside. Off-field troubles eventually cost Henderson his roster spot as the team released him after the season. Henderson, who moved back to outside at the end of the year, had strong tackle numbers but was average in his three seasons as a starter.

The Vikings took a chance on Bishop last season after he was released by Green Bay. Minnesota was slow to let Bishop take a starting spot, but he eventually moved ahead of Mitchell. Then he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and missed the rest of the season. Bishop might come cheap enough that he’d be worth a second try in Minnesota. Mitchell became a starter last season but was pedestrian and is better suited as a backup linebacker and special teams player.

The outside help: The free-agent market at linebacker is underwhelming and particularly on the outside for a 4-3 defense like Zimmer plans to run. Most of the better options are inside or middle linebackers. One option with a tie to Zimmer — because everyone loves to look at prior relationships — is Cincinnati’s Vincent Rey. Rey, 26, is a restricted free agent, so the Bengals can match any offer. But Cincinnati wouldn’t receive any compensation if they don’t match a deal.

Rey hasn’t been a full-time starter for Zimmer and has played middle linebacker, but maybe he could fit the bill either in the middle or outside for Minnesota. He filled in as the starter for Rey Maualuga for three games last year and had 30 tackles, three sacks, four pass deflections and an interception in the three games.

Zimmer has talked about his desire for speed, and Rey fits the description and seemingly could play on the outside and also in the nickel defense. Other options could be Denver’s Wesley Woodyard, Chicago’s James Anderson, St. Louis’ Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and Jon Beason and Keith Rivers from the New York Giants.

4. Middle linebacker

The situation: The only reason outside linebacker looks like more of a need right now is because of the current players on the roster. Minnesota has Cole, who eventually became the starter in the middle last season, promising second-year player Michael Mauti and added Jasper Brinkley on Sunday, agreeing to terms to bring Brinkley back after one season in Arizona. But the situation is far from a sure thing.

Cole, 24, is entering his third NFL season and he started five games last year. He had 27 tackles, one sack and nearly had a couple of interceptions, looking far more comfortable in the middle than Henderson did. Mauti has health questions. He dropped to the seventh round for Minnesota last year because he was coming off his third knee surgery. But he looked quicker at the end of last season and finally rounded into shape, and he started to stand out on special teams. Brinkley left as a free agent but lasted only one season into a two-year deal with Arizona and started three of the first four games before he was limited to spot duty behind Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. Brinkley wants to re-establish his value in a return to Minnesota.

The incumbent: Cole would have to be considered the incumbent, but Henderson is the one truly being replaced in the middle. He was moved to the middle after Brinkley left in free agency, but never looked like a solid starter in the middle. The Vikings, in some form, need two starting linebackers. Cole, Mauti or Hodges could fit into the mix, but answers and more depth, maybe, is needed. Minnesota started Henderson in the middle and Mitchell on the outside early last season. Both are being replaced in free agency, the draft — where Minnesota could look to find someone like Buffalo’s Khalil Mack as an outside linebacker — or in keeping Cole as the starter or a promotion for Mauti or Hodges.

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The outside help: Curiously, Dansby is one of the top inside linebackers available. He started last season for Arizona on a one-year contract and did just what Brinkley is hoping to do by making himself more money as a priority free agent a year later. The Cardinals had Washington, Dansby and also rookie Kevin Minter along with Brinkley inside in its 3-4 defense last year.

A more realistic option for the Vikings as an inside linebacker would be someone like Rey or maybe Washington’s Perry Riley. Riley, 28, started inside in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense last season and had 115 tackles and three sacks. In the same style as Brinkley, New England’s Brandon Spikes, 26, is a big run defender who has questionable skills as a pass defender. Houston’s Joe Mays, 29, is athletic and has been around.

Baltimore’s Jameel McClain, 29, visited Minnesota on Monday. He was released by the Ravens in February, meaning he was free to visit or sign with any team as a vested veteran. McClain had been a four-year starter inside in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense. He had 52 tackles 10 games last year.

5. Safety

The situation: The Vikings return their two starters and have the top three backups under contract. This isn’t about finding depth or plugging a hole. Adding another safety would be about finding a top-notch partner for Harrison Smith. Jamarca Sanford has been a steady player, mainly against the run, and is a leader in the secondary and in the locker room. But if Minnesota could find another elite safety to go with the emerging Smith, it would improve the back end of the defense immensely.

Andrew Sendejo played well at times, but has been more of a special teams player in his career. Blanton played more cornerback in games last year than he did safety. Mistral Raymond was a one-time starter beat out by Sanford and has struggled to regain his place in the secondary.

The incumbent: Sanford is brash, loves to hit and has come up with several big plays as a starter for Minnesota. But his range is limited and he’d be better off as a backup safety and he’s a quality special teams player. He’s been best in playing the run and isn’t seen as someone who has the range to play the deep part of the field. Replacing Sanford would be about finding a player with range, who would still play the run, and able to team with Smith to give the Vikings an imposing set of safeties to deal with the pass-happy teams in the NFC North.

The outside help: There are several premier safeties that are reaching free agency, but it’s doubtful Minnesota will ante up to add the top names like Buffalo’s Jarius Byrd or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward. The free-agent class also includes San Francisco’s Donte Whitner and Miami’s Chris Clemons.

If the Vikings make a move on a safety it will probably be with the implied expectation of a starting role and an upgrade from Sanford. It would have to be one of the names listed above, or possibly Baltimore’s James Ihedigbo, Carolina’s Michael Mitchell. Two of Zimmer’s former safeties, Chris Crocker and Taylor Mays, are also free agents.

One name to keep an eye on? Clemons. Miami gave big money to Reshad Jones last year and then signed former Lions safety Louis Delmas on Monday. Clemons, 28, has started every game the past two seasons for the Dolphins — where Edwards was the linebackers coach last year, of course — and had at least 93 tackles each season with three interceptions and 12 pass deflections. With Jones and Delmas in Miami, and Byrd and Ward as the top free-agent prizes, maybe Clemons becomes available at a decent price.

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