Slowly the tweets started to appear during the weekend, players announcing they’re leaving their offseason homes, the warmer climates to return to Minnesota.
"Charlotte it’s been real," new Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn wrote on his Twitter page on Saturday. "Minnesota are y’all ready I know I am #24."
"Great to be back at Winter Park today! Can’t wait to get back to work with the rest of the guys on Monday!," tight end Kyle Rudolph tweeted last week.
Minnesota convenes at Winter Park, the team’s facilities in Eden Prairie, Minn., on Monday for the start of its offseason program. A benefit of having a new coach, the Vikings are one of seven teams able to begin workouts two weeks in advance of other NFL teams, and are able to do conditioning work, weight lifting and also hold team meetings.
General manager Rick Spielman had his to-do list in January and has been steadily checking off the boxes the past four months.
– Find a coach to guide the decision on quarterbacks . . . check.
– Agressively address a defense that allowed the most points in the league last season . . . check.
– Find a young quarterback to groom for long-term success . . . the NFL Draft is in one month.
The tone for the offseason was set with the hiring of coach Mike Zimmer. Few know, and are willing to share, why it took Zimmer so long to become a head coach. But he earned this chance with Minnesota.
Gone is Leslie Frazier and his steady, calm approach. Enter Zimmer, the no-nonsense, fiery leader. Conventional wisdom in sports is coaches are often replaced by polar opposites. It appears to be the case for Minnesota.
Zimmer brings with him a sharp defensive mind and a knack for getting the most out of his players as a defensive coordinator. The Vikings needed a new voice as much as a new defense. Zimmer will command respect if his history is an evidence and his defenses have routinely been among the league’s best even without much All-Pro type talent.
While the league’s emphasis on offense is prevalent — four of the new head coaches have offensive backgrounds, the Browns settled for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine after a strange search and Lovie Smith returned to coaching well-established — Spielman went against the trends and hired Zimmer.
The move was lauded around the league and Vikings’ players were enthusiastic about the choice and excited to get to work with Zimmer.
Zimmer often has said he would refrain from judgment on players until he’s able to sit with them in meetings, see them on the field. Zimmer and the players get their first impressions out of the way Monday.
Every offseason is critical in the constant changing landscape of the NFL, but this offseason is a new beginning for Minnesota. A new coach is in town and significant changes have been made to the coaching staff and personnel, particularly on the defense.
The Vikings allowed a league-high 30 points per game last season. The 397.6 yards per game allowed were the second-worst in the NFL. Zimmer brings his aggressive scheme, extensive blitz package and reliance on strong defensive line play.
Minnesota made a big financial move to keep Everson Griffen in town. It went out and signed big nose tackle Linval Joseph early in free agency and added depth with the signings of end Corey Wootton and tackle Tom Johnson.
The secondary which has been maligned for years will have Xavier Rhodes in his second season, the developing Harrison Smith healthy for his third season and Munnerlyn is a veteran, steady player.
More is needed, particularly at linebacker where there are few known options other than Chad Greenway and in the secondary. If any team is an example of the adage that "you can never have enough good cornerbacks" it’s the Vikings.
But as a unit, Minnesota looks much improved on a defense that faded so much over the past few seasons.
Spielman checked another box when he re-signed Matt Cassel. Cassel, while not an elite level player, provided competency and consistency at quarterback for the Vikings last season. The offense looked its smoothest with Cassel at the helm.
Though Cassel only started six games, Minnesota averaged 24.4 points per game last season, which tied for 14th in the league. In seven games in which Cassel played at least a half, the Vikings were 4-3 in a season in which they finished 5-10-1.
Adding Norv Turner as the offensive quarterback and quarterback mentor was the next step. Turner’s hiring was a coup for Minnesota, matching his offensive flair with Zimmer’s defensive aptitude. Spielman and Zimmer haven’t been shy about leaning on Turner for help in selecting a quarterback and they’ve also been open in saying they will select a quarterback in May’s draft.
There are more boxes to check off on Spielman’s to-do list, but the Vikings congregate this week on the heels of a strong offseason, which has likely gone according to Spielman’s plan.