It was a few weeks ago. Vikings linebackers coach Brian Baker was in his office, working, when head coach Mike Tice stuck his head in the door.
"How would you like to add Chris Claiborne?" Tice asked Baker. "I think we can get him."
Baker, who was an assistant coach in Detroit when Claiborne, a big-play linebacker, was drafted with the ninth overall pick by the Lions, smiled.
"I said, 'Are you kidding?'" Baker recalled this week. "Then I said, 'Mike, that's a no-brainer.'"
The Vikings unofficially drew a close to their major moves in the first phase of free agency when they signed Claiborne to a two-year, $5 million contract that included a $750,000 signing bonus. In Claiborne they got a big -- indeed, the Lions thought he was too big, one reason he was available, but more on that later -- linebacker who will play the strong side this year, then slide into the middle when veteran Greg Biekert retires, which could come after this season.
With apologies to cornerback Denard Walker and Ken Irvin -- earlier signees in the Vikings' quest to upgrade their defense -- Claiborne could be the biggest signing of the off-season.
Just ask Baker, who watched him play close-up.
"If he's half of what he should be," Baker said, "then this was THE catch of free agency. For any team. He has that kind of difference-making ability."
Suddenly the linebacking corps, which was a big question mark, has some answers. The addition of Claiborne -- a big, 250-pounder who is also fast enough to engage in pass coverage -- will allow the Vikings to take the aging Biekert off the field in nickel situations. On base downs, the Vikings will have a veteran presense in the middle (Biekert) and on the strong side (Claiborne), which might give the Vikings the confidence to go with youngster Raonall Smith on the weakside. Smith and Henri Crockett are expected to battle for that position, but a situation could emerge where Crockett, strong vs. the run, would play on base downs and Smith, a speedster, would play on passing downs.
Not that there aren't some questions. Some reports had Claiborne playing at up to 270 pounds last season, 20 pounds over the weight the Vikings would like to see him at.
But Claiborne, already showing his committment to re-focusing on his career, was 250 for his physical with the team and is planning on moving to Minnesota quickly to take part in the team's off-season training program.
"I needed something new," he said. "And I think this is a great place for me. ... The great thing about coming here is that I can prove (his critics) wrong. I'm going to make plays, get interceptions. And hopefully I'll get a lot against (the Lions)."
Claiborne, a wicked pass-rusher, gives defensive coordinator George O'Leary all sorts of options he didn't have before. Claiborne can be used as a blitzer, or as a pass-rusher in nickel situations. His ability to be on the field in every situation will give O'Leary the ability to play cat-and-mouse games with offenses, especially when it comes to blitz packages.
And it gives the Vikings another physical player on the defense.
And it culminates a free agency program that started slow but ended fast. The Vikings lost out on some early targets, most notably at cornerback. But they have signed three defensive players -- Claiborne, Walker and Irvin -- who should be starters for them next season.
"I'd say we're at least 40 to 50 percent better," O'Leary said. "And that's on personnel alone, because of who we got in. We've helped ourselves in all the areas."
What Claiborne Means
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