The Vikings contingent is deep in its firsthand analysis of draft prospects at the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but once the rookie draft hopefuls leave Indianapolis, teams like the Vikings will refine their draft board. We're still more than two months away from the draft, and in between now and May 8, there is a lot of activity that is going to take place as free agency changes the landscape of the league.
New players will be signed. In-house talent will be re-signed. Others will be allowed to leave. While general manager Rick Spielman is clearly the man in charge of developing the Vikings draft board, Mike Zimmer may have a bigger role in providing input on free agency, especially as it pertains to the teams he is most familiar with – the Cincinnati Bengals and the teams from the AFC North (Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland).
The reality of the NFL is that coaches and general managers can watch film on players, but, much for the same reason that the Combine is valuable, film doesn't tell the entire story. Teams learn more in individual interviews and medical testing than they glean from 40 times, reps of 225 pounds or shuttle run. In free agency, teams are investing millions of dollars in players so having an insight into their psyche, their work habits, their strengths and weaknesses and their ability to be locker room leaders is imperative. That's where Zimmer's first significant contribution might come.
By the nature of NFL scheduling, teams from one conference only play teams from the other conferences once every four years. In 2013, the Vikings played the Bengals, Steelers, Ravens and Browns. They hadn't played them since 2009 and won't play them again until 2017. The last time the Vikings played the Ravens, it was in the middle of a Maryland December blizzard. The next time they're scheduled to meet will be in the Vikings new stadium, which is still in the very early stages of construction. In the NFL, four years can be a lifetime.
Zimmer gives the Vikings an insight into not only the Bengals, but the players on the other teams in the division. When you prepare for a team twice a year, there becomes a familiarity that other teams don't have. Teams like Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago have a shorthand when it comes to what they can expect to see from the Vikings offense. There was a reason the Packers would place nine players in the box to try to stop Adrian Peterson. There's a reason why the Lions consistently used tight ends and fullbacks to chip Jared Allen. The same is true for the AFC North and that is where Zimmer comes in.
As things currently stand, the Bengals have three players that could be of interest to the Vikings in free agency – defensive end Michael Johnson, safety Taylor Mays and linebacker Vincent Rey.
As the Vikings look to replace Allen, Johnson is a natural fit. Although his 2013 season was a step back from his 11.5 sacks in 2012, he has an excellent blend of size of speed and could provide the Vikings with the lift they need – even though he isn't viewed as a lock to have double-digit sacks every year. Allen spoiled Vikings fans by setting the bar for sacks so high that it will be difficult for anyone to replace him. But Johnson could be an excellent start.
Mays is a four-year veteran who plays strong safety and could be an ideal complement to Harrison Smith. While the Vikings have a decent core of safeties, aside from Smith, they don't have big playmakers on the back end of the defense. Chris Crocker is also a free agent and could be a possibly for the Vikings to consider.
Rey has primarily been a special teams contributor and is a restricted free agent because he is only three years into the league. The Vikings would have to make a serious offer, but if Zimmer believes he can help the thin Vikings linebacker corps, it may be worth pillaging the Bengals.
As the Zimmer Administration begins the process of trying to bring the Vikings back to the top of the NFC North, a hidden (but key) component to getting a leg up on the rest of the division could be Zimmer's familiarity with the free agents that will be coming out of the AFC North.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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