Over the next three weeks, and likely longer with the camps commencing after the draft, the focus will be on quarterbacks and linebackers. But that focus could only happen for the Minnesota Vikings after what they accomplished in free agency.
Obtaining an upgrade in the secondary with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was an important step, but even Munnerlyn realizes where the focus of the Vikings defense is moving forward: the defensive line. Twice in an interview, and unprompted both times, Munnerlyn said the emphasis of the defense starts up front.
"You build defense off the front four, defensive line. You go out there and let those guys hunt and we cover them in the back end," Munnerlyn said. "We signed some great people on the defensive line to make our jobs easier on the back end. The same philosophy we had in Carolina: to have those guys hunt and we just cover them up."
It seems ironic that the hunting reference is used when it will be the first time since 2008 that the Vikings enter the season without their most famous hunter, Jared Allen. Allen is likely to put the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears.
Kevin Williams also became a free agent in March. He has had only one known visit so far, with the New York Giants. He, too, might also have a shot at the Hall of Fame.
But it's interesting that the Vikings let those two go, then intently focused on the defensive line in free agency. In part, it's because they were moving on without those two. Moving forward without them also allowed the Vikings the salary-cap freedom to make moves. Allen and Williams accounted for about $20 million in 2013 salary-cap space. Besides being in their 30s and being an oversized piece of the cap pie, there was another reason that Mike Zimmer was willing to move forward without them: He didn't feel they fit exactly what the Vikings were looking for in their defensive linemen. Both were great pass-rushing pieces, but Zimmer's defense will call for more anchoring from his defensive linemen.
In all, the Vikings had almost $36 million dedicated to their defensive line in 2013, one of the highest in the league. Half the league had half or less than that, according to overthecap.com. The team that had more? The Cincinnati Bengals, built to Zimmer's specifications over time.
This year, the Vikings have been passed by numerous teams in their spending on the line, and they reduced their financial commitment to the defensive line by almost $10 million. But they haven't reduced their focus on the defensive line; they just spread out the spending a bit more – no more $17 million commitment to Allen – and, we would argue, spent it a little more wisely (no commitment of more than $4 million to a part-time player like Letroy Guion was, despite what his number of starts would misleadingly indicate).
"Defense wins championships. You definitely have to have a strong defense," middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley said. "You definitely have to have guys that are greedy and aggressive up front, guys that want to get to the ball, guys that want to make every play. You have 11 guys that want to make every play and you're going to have a pretty good defense."
The Vikings reinvested Guion's money, and a bit more, in more of a true nose tackle in Linval Joseph. They paid what they hope will be a younger, Allen-like, havoc-causing Everson Griffen. They are ready to have Shariff Floyd make a bigger impact in taking over for Kevin Williams. They added important rotational pieces in Corey Wootton and Tom Johnson. And perhaps just as importantly, they might actually employ the philosophy of rotating their defensive linemen more liberally instead of just talking about it and then allowing guys like Allen and Brian Robison to play themselves tired with 90 percent of the snaps.
It will be a different look on the defensive line this year, for sure, but on a franchise that has been known for its defensive lines more than any other position in their 52-year history, the makeover in personnel and philosophy will be interesting to watch.
Will it be better? Time will tell, but we do know that has been the initial intense focus of Zimmer's first season as the defensive architect.
"It's going to be a very physical defense. They're going to have a very good defensive line," Munnerlyn said. "Just let those guys hunt and we come up from the back end and make plays."
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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