When the finality of an NFL season hits, especially when it comes to pending free agents, there can be some mixed feelings about it.
Some players are excited at the prospect of signing the contract that can potentially set up a player and his family for life. Others have grown attached to the city, the coaches, the teammates and the fan base of the organization they play for and hope that the front office feels the same way about them and keeps them around.
Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn finds himself at a crossroads in his career. He turns 29 in April and still has some good football in front of him, but he also realizes that, at his size, he is pigeon-holed in the view of most front offices as a nickel cornerback and the market for them isn’t the most lucrative.
The question facing Munnerlyn is will the Vikings step up with an offer to keep him in purple or will there be another organization that sees his value and offers considerably more?
That’s the conundrum facing Munnerlyn and he hopes Minnesota will make the decision easy and he doesn’t have to uproot his family again and move on.
“A wise man always told me that the grass ain’t always greener on the other side,” Munnerlyn said. “You have some guys that go out there and try to take care of their families if another team offers them more money. But, as a player, you also want to feel comfortable. My situation here, it took me a whole year to get really comfortable with the guys in the locker room, to get comfortable with the coaching scheme and things like that. I’ve grown up a lot here as a football player and a person, but you also want to be compensated for what you do on the field.”
Munnerlyn realizes that his role in a defense is almost exclusively playing in the slot, but, given the amount of three- and four-receiver sets that are played routinely in the NFL, the need for elite specialists that play in the constrained area of the slot are required and important positions.
“I feel I’m one of the best slot corners in the NFL,” Munnerlyn said. “I’ve accepted that as my role and I try to play my role at a high level. I just want to be the best player I can be and I have a specific job in this defense and I try to make the most of that and do my job on every play.”
One thing that Munnerlyn has going for him is that he was specifically targeted by Mike Zimmer when he took over as Minnesota’s head coach. When Zimmer assessed the Vikings defense, he saw that adding a slot corner who could more than just hold his own was a necessity and Munnerlyn filled that bill because he understood the needs to making Zim’s defense succeed.
“On defense, all the parts need to be working – all 11 guys on the field – to succeed,” Munnerlyn said. “If one guy messes up or steps out of his gap – he’s supposed to be inside and he’s outside – it’s going to mess up everything for all 11 guys. Playing the quarterbacks that we play in the NFL, it’s tough. You can’t second-guess. You’ve always got to be on point in this defense and be thinking about your teammates instead of doing your own thing.”
That wasn’t always the case. Munnerlyn ran out of a vastly different scheme in Carolina to start his career and at times he had a philosophical butting of heads with Zimmer. He had a hard time wrapping his mind around some of the concepts, some of which seemed diametrically opposed to what he ran in college and with the Panthers.
He felt his first season with the Vikings was the most frustrating and humbling of his professional career. But, once he embraced the concepts of Zimmer’s scheme – even when they went against his natural live-action instincts – he feels his last two seasons have been the best of his career.
“Sometimes in my first year, I wouldn’t say I was doing my own thing all the time, but I second-guessed it too often,” Munnerlyn said. “I thought to myself, ‘Why does (Zimmer) want me out here? I can’t make a play if I’m like this.’ I learned why he wanted us where we were and, once I embraced that, things got a lot better for me and for our defense once we all bought in and understood what they were teaching us.”
That acceptance and understanding of the nuances of Zimmer’s defense could help explain why Munnerlyn sat in his locker at U.S. Bank Stadium still in uniform when many of his teammates had already showered, dressed and left the building following the regular-season finale.
He sat back and scanned the room several times, because, as a seven-year veteran, he knows how the business of football works and was taking in the scene for what he knows might be the very last time. He hopes that isn’t the case, but he’s realistic.
“I was reminiscing,” Munnerlyn said. “I was looking at guys like Chad (Greenway) and B-Rob (Brian Robison) – guys who have been playing this game for a long time – because we had a special group this year. I was kind of down on myself a little bit, because we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. Starting 5-0 and not making the playoffs was hard. This was one of the best teams I’ve ever played on. To go out like we did with the talent we had on defense was kind of heartbreaking for me.”
As free agency gets closer, the suits at Winter Park are going to make the difficult decisions as to who stays and who goes, but Munnerlyn remains optimistic that the Vikings will make a competitive offer to keep him in Minnesota because he wants to continue to play here. He believes he can be one of the players that can bring the Super Bowl title to Minnesota that has eluded the franchise for more than half a century.
“I don’t know what the future is going to bring me,” Munnerlyn said. “I didn’t regret leaving Carolina because Coach Zimmer targeted me as one of his guys and to feel wanted was something that meant a lot to me. He won me over on my recruiting visit and nothing has changed. There are a lot of things that are going to play into it, but, if there’s a chance that I can stay here, I want to keep building on what we have in place because we truly have the talent here to win a Super Bowl.”