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Vikings to dip into free agency

The change over for the Minnesota Vikings has already been pretty drastic after a disappointing 5-10-1 record, and more is sure to come.

The ousters have come and gone, with the replacements already warming the coaches’ offices at Winter Park.

With the big change over in coaches, from the soft-spoken, conservative nature of Leslie Frazier to the aggressive, acid-tongued Mike Zimmer, the path through free agency and the NFL draft will certainly be dictated by the new look coaching staff.

Defensively, the Vikings go from the soft-cover Tampa-Two scheme, to the more in-your-face attack nature of Zimmer.

Offensively, the conservative scheme run by Bill Musgrave, which was focused on the rushing game of all-world Adrian Peterson, has been replaced by what will be considered an attack downfield kind of strategy employed by longtime offensive guru Norv Turner.

In other words, the cart on both sides of the ball will be turned upside-down.

With the dust settled on who will be running what, the next big step starts Tuesday with the opening of free agency.

The Vikings have cut several players to raise their salary cap to a staggering $40-plus million.

General Manager Rick Spielman has already stated he wants to avoid the “first wave” of free agency, which usually doles out bloated contracts to veterans, who more than likely will under-play their contract.

That means very little, actually, since Spielman tried to dive into the first wave last year, when he went after wide receiver Mike Wallace, but instead ended up with Greg Jennings.

But if the past is any indicator, the Vikings won’t be big players in the first wave of free agency. Besides Jennings, the only other big-name free agent the Vikes ever landed was cornerback Antoine Winfield, which ended up being a homerun for the Mike Tice regime at the time.

Brad Childress landed his first big free agent in his first year after signing Seattle All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson, which again, was a very successful move.

The Brett Favre saga could be considered a free agent boon – for one season, at least – while the aggressive trade for Jared Allen was another successful venture, although not really in the free-agent signing realm.

But the way the Vikings approach free agency will directly affect what they do in the upcoming NFL draft, obviously.

There are two major tasks Zimmer and Spielman will have to tackle, along with several less crucial ones.

The first, of course, is the quarterback position. It’s a challenge the last four regimes failed miserably at meeting. Hence the reason why none of them are employed as head coaches anymore.

Dennis Green came close with the drafting of Daunte Culpepper, but that experiment went downhill fast after an exploded knee and a trading miscue of Randy Moss.

Since then, Childress has failed with Tarvaris Jackson and Frazier went down with the ship with Christian Ponder.

There isn’t much of a Band-Aid option in free agency for Zimmer and Turner. The chance of catching lightning in a bottle like Green did with Cunningham and Childress with Favre isn’t out there.

But the Vikings still will need a veteran QB to compete with Ponder (who is still on the roster) and the one or two rookie quarterbacks who will be taken in May.

Peterson opened up the Michael Vick can already with his Tweet, but Spielman is focusing on last year’s starter, Matt Cassel.

The other unflattering free agent is Chicago’s Josh McCown, who rejuvenated a bit in the Windy City last year.

Vick is intriguing, but the circus he may bring probably isn’t worth it for the new regime.

Going the safe route and trying for Cassel makes sense here.

Now onto more pressing free agent matters – defense.

Minnesota’s defense was arguably worse than the QB play last year.

Much like in any other sport, the Vikings need an overhaul in the middle of the defense and there are some tasty options out there for the right price.

First, mark all free agents over the age of 30 off the Vikings’ list, since Spielman’s history is not to give big money to aging players.

The focus should be on signing two higher-quality defensive players, plucking at least a pair off this list:

* Linval Joseph – This 6-4, 323-pound defensive tackle would instantly bring back the days of the Williams Wall, with Pat Williams being the major anchor of that tandem.

Joseph would put credibility back in the Vikings’ rushing defense, which also would free up the athletic, pass-rushing Sharrif Floyd.

The alternative to Joseph would be Packer NT B.J. Raji, who is a run-stuffing 6-2, 337 force. His age matches up at 27, as well.

* Aquib Talib and Alterraun Verner – Nabbing one of these two press-coverage cornerbacks is almost a necessity.

Gone is the Tampa-Two coverage and in is a more press-style coverage, which needs physical and fast cornerbacks.

Xavier Rhodes is looking like he will prosper in this scheme, with Talib or Verner being a must on the other side. It could be the first time in Vikings’ history the defense would have two higher level CBs at the same time.

Add in re-signing Chris Cook as a nickel. This move may be frowned upon after he was burned a lot last year, but his style may converge well with the aggressive attack of Zimmer. A bargain signing of Cook wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Other CBs who would fit in at a bit cheaper rate includes Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Sam Shields, Walter Thurmond and Captain Munnerlyn, who is a run-stopping beast, but could be a liability in coverage.

Getting either Talib or Verner, who is only 25 years old, along with one of the others, could bring to an end the Vikings’ secondary woes.

* Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward – At the safety position, one of these two, along with Harrison Smith, would make the backend of the defense stronger.

Byrd’s numbers will probably fly away from Spielman, but Ward might be a smart signing, one in which will bring a hard-hitting machine and strengthen that middle.

Unfortunately, the middle linebacker position will need to be addressed in the draft or in-house. The linebacking options overall are weak in free agency.

* Michael Johnson – The defense end position can be addressed by re-signing Everson Griffen, who I believe is an up-and-comer if allowed to start.

But the fallback would be Johnson, who played for Zimmer in Cincinnati.

Johnson will be more expensive than Griffen, which ultimately takes away the chances of signing a Joseph/Verner/Ward combination.

There are plenty of second and third tier players who will eventually be signed to add depth, which is a vital piece to Zimmer’s puzzle.

But what the plans are of Spielman and Zimmer is being kept under wraps.

Free agency is just one tool to fixing the problem, it can’t be used as a remedy. It’s not a cure-all, but would be a good step in the right direction if done correctly.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.