Entering free agency, the Minnesota Vikings were flush with more than $40 million in salary cap space for 2014 and had definite holes to fill.
With some of the most money in the NFL to spend, Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman wasn’t window shopping. He was a buyer.
The Vikings didn’t go out and spend big where the money was going after safeties and cornerbacks. When it came to defensive ends, Spielman handed out one of the bigger contracts, but did so to keep Everson Griffen.
And he says he isn’t done.
"We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can, trying to hone on specific guys that we know can come in and help our ball club," Spielman said on Friday. "I think by the activity that we’ve done so far, it’s by no means the end of what we’re going to do. We’ll continue to monitor the market and work through the next couple weeks."
Spielman said Minnesota has more visits lined up with players this week. He also said the team will continue to keep an eye on defensive tackle Henry Melton — who was at Winter Park on Thursday — as he continues visiting with other teams.
The Vikings have about $13 million in salary cap space remaining after agreeing to terms on Saturday to bring back left guard Charlie Johnson on a two-year, $5 million contract.
"We’d like to still continue to fill some holes," Spielman said. "We’re not saying by any means that we’re completely finished, because you don’t know what’s going to happen."
A look at what’s been done:
Minnesota started its spending a few days before free agency officially opened.
First, the Vikings re-signed punt returner Marcus Sherels and then locked up an important piece to the overall picture in bringing back quarterback Matt Cassel on a two-year contract.
"I wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with Matt," Spielman said. "And when we hired (offensive coordinator Norv Turner), Norv liked Matt a lot. He’s going to come in. I think that was a huge piece to this whole thing and it got us started off the right way."
Minnesota then re-signed Griffen to start at defensive end and also brought back linebacker Jasper Brinkley to add to the competition and depth for two open linebacker spots. Other re-signings have included Johnson, receiver Jerome Simpson, offensive lineman Joe Berger and defensive tackle Fred Evans.
Going outside the organization, the Vikings’ two biggest additions were nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Joseph will be a key part of coach Mike Zimmer’s new defense and Munnerlyn gives Minnesota more depth at cornerback, likely as a starter in the base defense and moving inside to cover slot receivers in nickel packages.
Cornerback Derek Cox, from San Diego, was also signed to a one-year contract.
With the signings so far, the Vikings have essentially locked up starters at every position on offense and might only have one or two starting spots open on defense.
Spielman still wants to "fill some holes." Where might he be looking?
Overall, the pickings are becoming slim.
Linebacker is the one position where Minnesota doesn’t return a starter from last season — aside from the expected promotion of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd — or has signed a potential replacement. The team cut linebacker Erin Henderson, opening at least one starting spot.
Audie Cole started five games at the end of last season, but the Vikings are still one linebacker short for a 4-3 base defense. Chad Greenway returns — with a reported pay cut — and Cole will have to withstand challenges from Brinkley and Michael Mauti as a middle linebacker. Or Minnesota could move Cole outside to compete with Gerald Hodges and Larry Dean, and have Brinkley or Mauti fill the inside.
But Minnesota has to be keeping an eye on the linebacker market. Many of the outside linebackers available in free agency are of the 3-4 pass-rushing type. James Harrison, 35, was a former 3-4 outside linebacker, who played outside in a 4-3 last year in Cincinnati for Zimmer. Harrison’s age could be one deterrent, though. Michael Boley also played for Zimmer last year. Harrison started 10 games, Boley had one start.
Other outside linebackers include Denver’s Shaun Phillips, Seattle’s O’Brien Schofield, Buffalo’s Arthur Moats, Chicago’s James Anderson, Atlanta’s Stephen Nicolas and Washington’s Rob Jackson.
Desmond Bishop, whose one season in Minnesota was cut short by an ACL injury, is still unsigned. Inside linebackers available include Indianapolis’ Pat Angerer, Denver’s Stewart Bradley and Kansas City’s Akeem Jordan.
The Vikings are likely to look to the draft for linebackers, as well, with a few players possible with the No. 8 overall pick.
A report by 1500ESPN over the weekend said Minnesota had inquired about Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Multiple reports say Rodgers-Cromartie has spent the past few days in New York and is taking physicals for both the Giants and Jets.
The Vikings might not be able to give Rodgers-Cromartie the money he’s seeking, but the report of interest could prove they are still looking for cornerbacks. Aside from Rodgers-Cromartie, the New York Jets’ Antonio Cromartie, San Francisco’s Carlos Rogers, the New York Giants’ Terrell Thomas and Miami’s Dimitri Patterson are still available. Spielman said the Minnesota would also look at cornerbacks in the draft.
"I know you need corners in this division," Spielman said. "You need corners in the way the NFL is today and you can never have enough of those guys. We’ll look to continue to add even more corners. The more competition we can create, not only at that position but every position, is going to help make our ball club that much better."
The Vikings return starting safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford, but could be looking for more depth or upgrades. The market on free-agent safeties was hot early with Jarius Byrd, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner signing big deals. Minnesota could swoop in this week and find a bargain with safeties like Miami’s Chris Clemons, Atlanta’s Thomas DeCoud, Chicago’s Major Wright, Kansas City’s Kendrick Lewis, Baltimore’s James Ihedigbo and even Cincinnati’s Chris Crocker still out there.
With the Vikings still monitoring the market for Melton, more depth at defensive line is a need. Spielman and Minnesota haven’t ruled out a return for defensive tackle Kevin Williams. While standouts at the position are few in free agency, maybe Zimmer would take a look at a player like Pat Sims, 28, who played his first five seasons with Zimmer and the Bengals.