Sunday slant: Familiarity first in free agency for Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings may “dabble” in free agency, but familiarity will help them make their choices.

As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the opening bell in free agency, they have room to maneuver, but it will be a cautious approach. With about $24.5 million in cap room (before re-signing Andrew Sendejo), the Vikings fall in the middle of the league for space.

Ten teams have more than $15 million more to spend than the Vikings, led by the Jacksonville Jaguars with an astonishing $80.9 million under the cap. In the NFC North, the Chicago Bears have $46 million in cap space and the Detroit Lions enter the signing season with $32.8 million. The Green Bay Packers have $21.5 million.

But a cautionary warning is worth it here: Just because they have money under the cap doesn’t mean the Vikings should use it up quickly. And they won’t.

There are too many factors to think they will be very aggressive in free agency. The first one is how much head coach Mike Zimmer likes his current roster.

“When things are going good and you got it going the right way, you want to try and maintain that and keep bringing better guys in, but make sure they are the right kind of guys,” Zimmer said. “I think after talking with a lot of guys after the season, the players, anybody that mentioned it said this is the best locker room they’ve ever been in, the best group of guys, the best bench of guys. Now if you’re losing, it’s probably a (expletive) locker room. But because we’re winning, it also helps.”

That’s not to say the Vikings won’t go after any free agents. Surely, they will. But it could be similar to last year, when the biggest signing was Terence Newman three weeks after free agency started.

Fans grew impatient, especially after a 7-9 season in which they were convinced major upgrades were needed. Instead, the Vikings made a tweak here (Newman) and there (the draft), but still largely relied on their improvement coming from within by having another year of familiarity with the schemes.

Yet, even if the Vikings do some outside shopping, chances are familiarity will play a factor there.

“I think when you’re messing around in free agency, I think the more you know a player the better chance you have of being correct. So for me, a lot of it has been familiarity,” Zimmer said. “Not only me knowing them, but them knowing me and how I am. I think that’s an important part of the process as well. We’ll just have to see. I really like my football team right now. I like the way they work, their mentality, the way they do their things.

If we can continue to add players that have our vision and where we can see them fitting in, then I think it’s great.”

That familiarity factor immediately had many thinking that a Bengals safety like George Iloka, who was drafted when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, would be a real possibility. Perhaps he still is, but by re-signing Sendejo it would appear to decrease the chances of signing Iloka or another Bengals safety, Reggie Nelson, to a big-buck contract.

Maybe that means familiarity at linebacker with Vincent Rey in Cincinnati if the Vikings don’t re-sign Chad Greenway, which they are expected to do. Or perhaps that even carries over to the offensive side of the ball with Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu.

Perhaps Tony Sparano liked what he saw out of offensive lineman Alex Boone in San Francisco last year while he was coaching tight ends, or Donald Penn in Oakland when Sparano was coaching there or saw some potential in Khalif Barnes there.

What if Pat Shurmur brings some influence to the offense, not only with his concepts but also in player recommendations?  

General manager Rick Spielman says the character of the player the Vikings bring in is “a very important priority.” Zimmer realizes, however, that not every NFL player is built the same. Some have flaws – he brought in several of those in Cincinnati – but he also supports second chances if he believes the player has learned from a mistake.

“I sit down and talk to them and I’m pretty honest with them about what we’re looking for. I kind of put it on the line that if you come here, this is what I expect of you and if you don’t do it we’re going to get rid of you. I’ve done that with several guys,” he said. “And when I was in Cincinnati, I had quite a few of those kind of guys and it turned out being pretty good. Sometimes they’re smart enough to understand, and I do think that’s part of it, that they’re smart enough to understand that – you know what? – I better not screw this up. This might be my last opportunity.

“I tend to shy away from the guys that this is their first opportunity and they’ve got a lot of baggage because usually those guys don’t wake up the first time. It’s usually the second or third time when they wake up.”

And that’s where really knowing the player can help, too, and why bringing in coaches from different systems and teams can aid in the acquisition of players.

The Vikings are in decent shape with their salary cap, but they also want to have the flexibility to extend contracts for the players they know best in the coming years. They may end up signing a player or two that helps in the coming weeks, but they are all aboard on the top priority in building the team.

“The theme and philosophy we’ve done is built through the draft, and all those draft picks now we’ve been able to accumulate, and with the coaching staff and how they develop young players, that’s starting to show up on the field,” Spielman said. “If you can continue to layer year in and year out and do a good job in the draft, I’d rather look to extend those guys in their second contracts then go out and do free agency.”

The Vikings have done their free-agent research, but they are much more likely to sign a supplement to what they have than sign a superstar.

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