DE Johnson would provide important role

The Vikings are expected to visit with DE Michael Johnson soon and it could be an important move for Mike Zimmer’s approach to the defensive line.

The Minnesota Vikings have continued to take a slow approach to free agency on Thursday, as the only outside free agent they have signed is backup QB Shaun Hill. Even if they are taking it slow, one thing they did that could speed along a free-agent signing is get in contact with defensive end Michael Johnson.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Johnson on Wednesday after they signed him as a free agent in 2014. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer wanted to sign Johnson last year, but the Vikings instead invested heavily in Everson Griffen while Johnson chose to go to Tampa Bay instead of Minnesota. Johnson and Zimmer spent time together in Cincinnati when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals.

Once the Buccaneers released him, the Vikings were a team that was expected to be interested in talking with him. Sure enough, a day later there have already been discussions about getting Johnson to Minnesota for a visit, and his visit to Minnesota will be the first visit he takes with any team. He could be visiting as early as Friday afternoon.

The Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals seem to be the only two serious contenders to land Johnson this offseason. He loved his time in Cincinnati, but he also has a lot of respect for Zimmer and had the best seasons of his career with him as a coach.

If the Vikings are able to land Johnson, it would do a lot for their pass rush. Last season the Vikings managed 41 sacks, and that was playing in a style that Zimmer does not necessarily like. Zimmer likes to be able to rotate players frequently and mix up the defensive line as a way to keep his players fresh, but he was not able to do that as prominently in 2014.

He apparently was not comfortable with the defensive ends he had behind Griffen and Brian Robison, so both of those players played in over 900 snaps. If Johnson joins the Vikings, it is another player that Zimmer feels comfortable with that he will be able to swap in and out of the defensive line.

Robison is currently 32 years old, so the more rest he can get the better. And Griffen may have started out the season red-hot but only had three sacks in the seven games following the bye. Whether that was because he got worn out from the amount of snaps he received or not is hard to say, but he did admit that playing on a full-time basis was his biggest adjustment. The extra rest certainly would not hurt his game.

Signing a player like Johnson, who is currently 28 and in the prime of his career, will likely not be cheap. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said the team was not going to sign any big-name free agents at the outset of free agency unless there was a “unique” opportunity. It is very possible that this could be one of those unique opportunities he was talking about – a player whom the Vikings wanted to sign a year ago being cut by his team and become a free agent again. Not only that, but a player who has experience playing for the head coach and would want to play for him again.

Of course, there is still a long way to go until any deal gets struck with Johnson by any team. But having him visit with the Vikings is the first step in that happening.

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