Presented with the opportunity and cash reserves to pursue one of his former defensive stalwarts, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer instead made his first big splash by re-signing ascending pass-rusher Everson Griffen to a $42.5 million deal just two days before the start of free agency.
A former defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Zimmer could have easily let Griffen test the market, thus giving himself a chance to put on a full-court press to acquire Michael Johnson, a 27-year-old defensive end who spent five seasons with Zimmer in Cincinnati.
Zimmer instead chose Griffen, and in a big way. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the Vikings gave Griffen $8.5 million per year over five years, with $20 million of the $42.5 million fully guaranteed.
The deal has to be viewed as nothing less than the ultimate show of faith from Zimmer.
While general manager Rick Spielman makes the final call on personnel decisions, any determination made on the defensive side of the ball would almost certainly come with full input from Zimmer and his staff. Unless Spielman completely overruled his opinion on the matter, Zimmer saw more in the 26-year-old Griffen than he did in his former starting defensive end.
And Johnson was no slouch during his time in Cincinnati.
Source: Pro Football Focus
Over five seasons with the Bengals, the 6'7" Johnson tallied 26.5 sacks, 27 passes defensed, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Over just the last two seasons, he managed an 11.5-sack year in 2012 and a disruptive season in 2013 that featured nine batted passes and two forced fumbles.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has been especially appreciative of Johnson's work, as the analytics site graded him as the Bengals' top defensive player and fourth-best 4-3 defensive end in 2013.
Since 2012, Johnson has totaled 118 quarterback disruptions while also grading out as one of the best 4-3 ends against the run.
Zimmer would have had every opportunity to sign Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, come Tuesday, the official start of free agency. The Vikings entered this offseason with mountains of cap room, giving Spielman the monetary power to lure a former playmaker of Zimmer's from Cincinnati to Minnesota. Many saw the reunion as a natural fit—need meeting familiarity meeting cap space.
Yet that's not how free agency will work out for the Vikings.
According to Ben Goessling of ESPN, Griffen's mega-deal has ruled Minnesota out of the running for Johnson. The Vikings told the free-agent defensive end that there will be no reunion between coach and player in the Twin Cities.
#Vikings have told Michael Johnson's camp they're out on the defensive end. Everson Griffen deal closed off that possibility.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) March 10, 2014
It's a telling and comforting turn of events for Griffen, who has clearly gained the trust and admiration of his new head coach.
A rotational player behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison his entire career, Griffen has only provided glimpses of his overwhelming potential. Over 59 career games and one start, he has just 17.5 sacks.
Yet the Vikings never gave him a full-time role, instead rotating him in and out at both end spots and inside at tackle, especially on passing downs. Minnesota even toyed with the idea of playing him at stand-up linebacker, an experiment that died a quick death.
What should the Vikings have done at defensive end this offseason?
Zimmer likely has a more concrete role in mind.
"The one thing about Mike for sure is that he'll look at a player and he'll tell us the strengths, and he'll tell us how he's going to use him and utilize his skill set within his system," Spielman told Coley Harvey of ESPN back in February. "It's been very refreshing."
Zimmer very easily could have pushed for Spielman to wait on Griffen and charge hard after Johnson, a long, disruptive defensive end who would have been a building block for Minnesota's defensive revival. He knows Zimmer's system, which typically asks its ends to respect the run over blitzing recklessly at the quarterback. A former third-round pick, Johnson eventually became a master at holding the edge and making life difficult on opposing running games. His 11.5 sacks in 2012 show he's more than just a run-stopper, too.
Yet in the end, despite all the options in front of them, Zimmer and the Vikings invested a large sum of cash in a future featuring Griffen.
Time will tell whether or not the Vikings made the right choice, re-signing Griffen over courting Johnson. But one thing is very obvious in the present: Zimmer likes what he sees in Griffen, his new starting defensive end. It's now on the ascending pass-rusher to make good on this obvious show of faith from his new head coach.