Zimmer faces extensive roster evaluation

With a coaching staff coming together and the Senior Bowl over, Mike Zimmer can start watching film of his own players. He will have an extensive evaluation process, with 15 unrestricted free agents to judge.

Mike Zimmer spent his first week on the job immersed in getting his coaching staff assembled.

Last week, the new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings continued that process, along with putting his focus on the potential draft picks at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

Eventually, Zimmer will get to evaluating the players that were already with the Vikings last year. That list includes 15 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March – including names like Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Jerome Simpson and potentially Matt Cassel – and two restricted free agents and one exclusive rights free agent.

But while some of the roster is aging and will be turned over, there are also 14 draft picks still on it from the previous two years – seven each from the classes for 2012 and 2013.

"I think we've got a great group of young core talent here," Zimmer said. "Obviously we've got some very, very special players. We're still in the evaluation process of all those things."

Zimmer's specialty is on the defensive side of the ball, where he spent 20 years coaching in the NFL. One of the Vikings' first picks is expected to be at quarterback, but the majority of the roster rebuilding is expected to happen on defense.

An argument could be made that less than half of the defensive spots are set – DE Brian Robison, LB Chad Greenway, CB Xavier Rhodes and S Harrison Smith. All others could be up for grabs, even if there are current leaders in the clubhouse.

General manager Rick Spielman interviewed most of the players on the roster in the days after the 2013 season ended to see what type of coach they wanted to see hired, as well as talking to assistant coaches that were part of the 2013 staff and are under contract for 2014.

"We felt that there's no secret sauce that this guy has to have this personality or come from this category," Spielman said of Zimmer. "It's just got to be the gut feeling what you think is the right fit. There was no question he is the right fit for us.

"He has a great history of developing young talent, of taking veterans and helping them play beyond their ability. And you don't have to stand up here and talk about what his defenses have done through his career. The other thing, as we went through this search, was talking to his former coaches, talking to former players, talking to agents who had players play for him. There was not one negative thing said about Mike Zimmer."

Still, Zimmer, Spielman and the personnel department will have to make some difficult decisions in the coming months. Of the 15 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, six of them started at least five games in 2013.

Only one of those, receiver Jerome Simpson, has been with Zimmer before – Zimmer was coordinating the defense with the Cincinnati Bengals while Simpson was playing receiver. The others will have to be judged by Zimmer – at least initially – by what he sees on film. If they make it past that evaluation and remain on the roster, they will have to prove themselves all over again on the practice field in the spring and summer workouts.

"I'm a big believer in, when we get out on the field, show me what you can do," Zimmer said. "So I don't ever want to pre-judge a player from what I see on film. Because I don't know what the previous coaches have told him. And I have my own ideas on how I want to do things."

Spielman said "football intelligence" and "leadership" led to Zimmer being hired. Zimmer's reputation for shooting straight and strong, and coaching hard, could be an adjustment for some players.

"I think honesty is always the best policy. That's what players want. Players want to be coached. They want to be told what is right and what's wrong, and I'm doing a disservice to our players if I'm not honest with them," Zimmer said. "I want people to be honest with me and I'm sure you want people to be honest with you. There's different ways to do it, I just think that's the best way to be and I'm going to do my very best to try to be as honest as I can. Sometimes they don't like the answer but they respect the answer."

Spielman came away impressed with the reviews he garnered on Zimmer. Just as Zimmer will be studying tape of players on the roster over the coming months, Zimmer's coaching tape is out there, too.

As the football phrase goes, "he is what he is."

"The thing that stuck out the most was that he's going to coach hard, he's going to push you as hard as he can," Spielman said. "But every person, to a man, talked about how much they loved playing for Coach Zimmer."

Zimmer has talked to some of his Vikings players and that process will continue. His message is that they better come ready to work, and they will be held accountable.

"Accountability is a big, big factor. Our players are going to be accountable here. They're going to be accountable to me, and I'm going to be accountable to the ownership and the general manager. That's the first step," Zimmer said. "There's a great quote by Vince Lombardi that says, ‘Once you have their hearts, they'll follow you anywhere.' That's really what I want to do. I want to grab these players' hearts and get them to follow me."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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