Vikings pattern defensive free-agent signings in Zimmer’s style

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been using free agency to craft the Vikings' defense in his image.

Ann Heisenfelt/ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of the first orders of business for Mike Zimmer after becoming the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach was getting general manager Rick Spielman, scouting director Scott Studwell and the rest of the team’s scouting and personnel staff together in a room.

Zimmer went to the film to show the types of players he’s looking for to reconstruct the Minnesota defense, which allowed the league’s most points last season. Zimmer used film from his defenses in Cincinnati, where he was the defensive coordinator, to highlight what specific traits he looks for at each position.

The Vikings’ moves in free agency the past week are a direct reflection.

On the offensive side, Minnesota has mainly stayed status quo, re-signing starting quarterback Matt Cassel, left guard Charlie Johnson, receiver Jerome Simpson and backup offensive lineman Joe Berger. Those moves aside, defense was the Vikings’ focus in free agency.

"From a defensive standpoint, the scheme is changing," Spielman said. "Coach Zimmer has been very clear on specifically what he’s looking for at the position and what we need to get in order for our defense to definitely improve, and we’ve been trying to attack those areas."

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With an aggressive approach, the Viking set out to fill their defensive holes by re-signing defensive end Everson Griffen and adding nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox.

Minnesota had as many as six starting positions open on the defense after releasing Letroy Guion and Erin Henderson and with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Chris Cook reaching free agency.

Joseph, signed to a five-year contract, and Munnerlyn on a three-year contract are both 25. Cox, on a one-year deal to re-establish himself after one season in San Diego, is 27.

"I know we were older on defensive and wanted to get younger," Spielman said. "There was some very good players out there. You can see most of our contracts were bigger contracts for guys that were young, and 25 years and getting their first chance to get a big contract and those are the type of guys that we want to lock in so they will be here for the long haul.

"You’ll also see as we continue, there will be come contracts that will be shorter term, one-year deals. Then we’re going to have our guys come in, whether it’s our own guys or other guys that are currently still out on the market on one-year deals to come in and show us what they have, let our coaches get a hold of them to see what they can with them and give them a chance to come in and compete as well."

Zimmer’s style has marked the Vikings’ free-agency moves.

Griffen was in a free-agent market flush with pass-rushing defensive ends, including Allen. Minnesota was linked to Michael Johnson, who was with Zimmer in Cincinnati. But the Vikings chose to stick with Griffen, acting when he was receiving interest from other teams, and watched as Johnson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I know when coach Zimmer and (defensive line coach) Andre Patterson and (defensive coordinator) George Edwards came in and they evaluated our roster, they seen a lot of the positive that Everson has had and what he has shown in the spurts that he has played," Spielman said. "They feel, and we feel, very confident that Everson is going to get his opportunity to be a starter now and showcase what he’s been able to showcase in spurts over the last couple year.

"But I know their philosophy is we want to try to get as many good defensive linemen in here as possible and they really believe in the rotation and getting those guys in and out of the games to keep them fresh as well. So as many quality guys as we can put together, we’re going to definitely do that. I also know as we went through the negotiations with Everson that there were other teams that were very interested in him that also made a strong push to get him."

Nose tackle is an important spot in Zimmer’s defense and the first move once free agency opened last week was Minnesota’s action on securing Joseph, a three-year starter for the New York Giants.

Joseph finally gives the Vikings the run-plugging nose tackle they had sought since Pat Williams’ tenure with the team was over. Former head coach Leslie Frazier was forced to use free-agent flop Remi Ayodele, Guion and Evans in a rotation over the past three seasons.

"Coach Zimmer is very big — no pun intended — at having a big two-gap type of nose tackle," Spielman said. "He’s had a lot of success with that in the defenses he’s been in. And Linval Joseph, and you guys got a chance to meet him, is a big man. But the one thing I don’t think he gets enough credit for is people say, ‘Oh, he’s a great run stuffer,’ but he’s very athletic for his size.  . . . We feel not only is he going to help us stop the run, but also has enough power and athletic ability, enough quickness to get up field as a pass rusher."

If there was any doubting Zimmer’s influence, the signing of Munnerlyn should clear up any doubts.

Frazier had pushed for the re-signing of Antoine Winfield last year. Winfield would have been the steady, veteran cornerback the team needed, able to play on the outside and moving inside in the nickel defense. Josh Robinson, in his first chance as a starter, struggled with the same responsibilities.

Enter Munnerlyn, who said he’s watched Winfield closely, to fill the role for Zimmer’s defense that Frazier hoped Winfield could last year.

"I think one of the things we wanted to address was especially the nickel position," Spielman said. "We see a lot of nickel snaps in this division when you play Green Bay and you play Detroit and Chicago. So we feel not only is he going to bring that leadership quality and that fire and competitiveness, he’s also going to be able to fill out that nickel role as well."

With the moves, Zimmer is putting his stamp on free agency and Minnesota’s changing defense.

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