Quietly, the Minnesota Vikings are putting in place the foundation for a sudden revival on defense.
The January arrival of defensive guru Mike Zimmer at head coach has since been merged with a smart, aggressive plan in free agency, and the Vikings appear far from done.
Just three days into free agency, a broken down, hole-filled defense that finished last season ranked dead last in points allowed looks well on its way to a meteoric rise up the rankings in 2014.
Re-signing defensive end Everson Griffen ahead of the new league year was a strong start, and the clearest sign yet of Zimmer's faith in the ascending, 26-year-old pass-rusher. Given a chance to jump start his rebuild with free agent Michael Johnson, who was a bedrock for Zimmer at defensive end in Cincinnati, the new Vikings coach instead went all-in on the versatile, disruptive Griffen.
Next was the acquisition of former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who signed on the second day of free agency. In Joseph, Zimmer acquired an ideal 1-technique, capable of playing the role of Pat Williams as an interior run-stuffer who can also collapse the pocket. Long-armed (34 1/2") and powerful (39 reps at the 2010 NFL combine), Joseph will slide in next to 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd to give Zimmer a talented one-two punch in the middle of the defensive line.
Maybe the smartest move came Thursday, when the Vikings successfully won over former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. While undersized at 5'8", the 25-year-old Munnerlyn is a versatile slot corner who is a pest against the run and productive blitzing the quarterback.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Munnerlyn allowed just one touchdown on 98 targeted passes in 2013. His 30 stops, or what PFF describes as a tackle constituting an offensive failure, led all cornerbacks, and he added 3.5 sacks and 10 total quarterback disruptions as a blitzer.
A sure tackler (only four misses on 70 attempts) who plays much bigger than his listed size, Munnerlyn is Minnesota's new Antoine Winfield. And best yet, his arrival will likely push Josh Robinson—one of the NFL's worst cornerbacks in 2013—out of a primary role.
The Vikings added even more depth at arguably the defense's worst position when former San Diego Chargers cornerback Derek Cox agreed to a one-year deal. While a huge bust in San Diego last season, Cox has ideal length (6'1") to be a boundary corner. And three times—in 2009, '10 and '12—he intercepted four passes during four successful years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Under Zimmer, his career could find restoration.
In just a handful of days, the Vikings have solidified the defensive line and added much-needed reinforcements at cornerback.
Floyd and Joseph inside and Griffen and Brian Robison on the edges has all the makings of a strong front. All four players are young and either into or entering their primes. This could be a disruptive group come September. At the very least, the line now has a true nose tackle.
At cornerback, Zimmer could have Cox and 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes at the perimeter positions, with Munnerlyn a jack-of-all-trades inside. It's a trio that blows the doors off what Minnesota trotted out at the position last season.
And more moves could be coming.
The team's official Twitter account confirmed defensive tackle Henry Melton visited Minnesota on Thursday. While he left without a deal, the visit proves Zimmer isn't done adding talented players, especially along the defensive line. In Cincinnati, Zimmer built his top-ranked defenses around a deep, disruptive line. He appears to be building his new defense in Minnesota in a similar fashion.
Melton, 27, played just three games for the Chicago Bears last season after needing surgery to repair a torn ACL. But when healthy, Melton is one of the NFL's more disruptive 3-techniques. A rotation involving Floyd, Joseph and Melton could be devastating, especially considering Griffen has the capability of also moving inside and rushing from the tackle position.
The Vikings still have cap room to make other moves.
Linebacker is far from settled, save for Chad Greenway on the strong side. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are tempting options at inside and weakside linebacker, respectively, and Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole can also play inside. But this group could use another talent infusion.
The Vikings also likely need another starter at safety alongside Harrison Smith. And depth at defensive end and cornerback is still a question mark.
Maybe the rest of the answers will come through the draft. The Vikings hold the eighth pick in the first round, which might or might not be used on a quarterback. If neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Blake Bortles is on the board at No. 8, the Vikings might be better off taking the best available defensive player and hoping a second-tier quarterback is available later on.
If the Vikings go that route, a sorry defense in 2013 could become a serious strength next season.
Buffalo edge player Khalil Mack could be an instant impact player for Zimmer, both at linebacker and as a rotational pass-rusher. He might not fall to No. 8. Other defensive options at that spot include UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert or Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
One of the advantages of filling holes in free agency is the freedom it allows come draft time. The Vikings, while deficient in some areas, will not be tied to any one position, which should give Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman the ability to select the player they think is the very best fit.
Just a handful of days into a new league year, and the Vikings have already found a number of good fits in free agency. Nose tackle and slot cornerback—arguably the two softest spots on Minnesota's defense in 2013—have been fixed. Zimmer identified and paid his pass-rusher.
The Vikings have a defense that is trending up. It's now worth wondering just how big a jump this group could take in 2014.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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