It’s easy to follow the splash free agency signings. Peyton Manning’s journey to Denver was well-documented, and Vikings fans have been lobbying for the top guard on the free agency market for years, whether it was Mike Iupati, Alex Boone or Clint Boling.

But sometimes, it’s the under-the-radar free agent signings that make the biggest difference. Tom Johnson has logged 2,500 snaps with the Vikings and was originally thought of as a camp body when he signed in 2014. Instead, he’s generated 16 sacks, 41 quarterback hits and 99 quarterback hurries to go along with his 107 tackles.

While Linval Joseph wasn’t quite under-the-radar, his emergence as a top-tier nose tackle has been critical to the Vikings success, and practice squad signings Rashod Hill and Andrew Sendejo have been key cogs in the Vikings machine.

Rounding out a roster with depth could end up meaning more than signing one or two stars.

NFL.com has a list of their top 101 free agents and ESPN has their own top 100 — lists that do a good job going over the most exciting free agent signings a team could make.

Instead, with over 450 players listed at OverTheCap.com and Spotrac, we’ll go over the other free agents that could end up making a huge difference late in the season, but that fans may not be aware of.

It will be difficult to predict which of those other free agents will end up improving or playing crucial roles but we can take a look at the kinds of players the Vikings have signed to see who they’ll target and who may end up in a purple uniform.

In this piece, we’ll be looking at players on the defensive side of the ball that may end up rounding out the training camp roster. Check out offensive under-the-radar free agent signings here.

Defensive Tackles

The Vikings will need help at the smaller pass-rushing defensive tackle position next to Linval Joseph, but they probably won’t find a starter in free agency short of somehow signing Sheldon Richardson. They have decent depth there once they do secure a starter, but could always use more — especially if they don’t re-sign Johnson.

At nose tackle, they may lose Shamar Stephen to free agency and could use a backup there — something they’ve wanted for some time. The Vikings may prioritize signing those defensive tackles that fit their historically applied workout thresholds, but there aren’t many of those hitting free agency.

To that end, the Vikings might go out of their way and sign some free agents who show potential but don’t hit their workout requirements. One of them has experience with Mike Zimmer.

Before getting to those potential free agents, there are some who have met those requirements. One of those is Chris Jones, a defensive tackle from Bowling Green that last played for the San Francisco 49ers. There is another, better, Chris Jones who plays on the interior defensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs who also happens to meet the Vikings’ workout requirements, but he’s not hitting free agency.

Unfortunately, an injury before the 2017 regular season kept the Bowling Green version of Jones off the field, but his gradual improvement over the past four seasons should give him credence as a veteran backup option with the athletic upside to push a starter.

Though a huge liability in the run, his 6.0 sacks (four half-sacks and four solo sacks) in his rookie season speaks well to what he can accomplish in the right system.

The Vikings could also look a few hours south and go after Mitch Unrein, a 3-4 defensive end with pass rush upside. Unrein was originally a one-gap defensive end for Wyoming before playing as a 3-4 end for his NFL career and could play in a one-gap system again in Minnesota.

Unrein just had the best season of his career, according to Pro Football Focus, and did it through a significantly improved run defense. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson were the coaches to unleash his true potential.

There are two other 3-4 defensive ends that might get a look at 3-technique defensive tackle for the Vikings, and both played for the Broncos. Billy Winn missed all of 2017 and was a capable backup for Denver before that while Jared Crick was largely a liability as a starter.

Traditional 3-technique tackles like Jordan Hill and Clinton McDonald — both former members of the Seahawks, though most recently employed by the Lions and Buccaneers respectively — could end up as veteran backups like Johnson did years ago. Hill, a third-round pick in 2013, bounced around after the Seahawks released him due to injury in 2016, and missed all of 2017 with a bicep tear. With the Seahawks, he demonstrated fantastic pass-rush capability and could rediscover it in Minnesota.

McDonald has worked with Mike Zimmer, as he was in the Bengals’ training camp and practice squad in 2009 and 2010. The defensive line calls may have changed with a new defensive line coach, but that experience could be valuable. McDonald’s run defense fell off after moving from Seattle to Tampa Bay, but he’s remained an underrated interior pass rusher and could reprise his role for Minnesota.

The Vikings could also invest in Tyrunn Walker, a hybrid nose/3-technique tackle who was miscast as a pure nose in Los Angeles because of injuries to the Rams defense. He was having a fairly great run in 2013 and 2014 for the New Orleans Saints, but met bad luck when playing for Detroit, breaking his fibula.

He never played as well for other teams as he did in New Orleans, but he’s the kind of defensive tackle that Andre Patterson might be able to unlock, like he did with Tom Johnson.

If the Vikings are looking at depth at the nose position, it will be a bit more difficult. Ahtyba Rubin and Mike Pennel both meet the explosiveness requirements that Minnesota looks for, but with Rubin hitting 32 and without having had a good season in four years, the Vikings may look elsewhere.

Pennel is a little younger, at 27, and has had three consecutive seasons of positive play, doing better in Green Bay’s more aggressive system in 2015 and 2016 than with the New York Jets’ version of a 3-4.

Typically, one wouldn’t want to use a big 3-4 nose tackle in a one-gap scheme where getting upfield is a priority, but Pennel has had success in pass-rushing situations and has the upfield burst that would make him an interesting backup candidate behind Linval Joseph.

As for those who don’t exactly meet the Vikings’ history of athletic cutoffs, Jay Bromley from the New York Giants is worth a look as he can play either position and has quietly been fairly impressive in a backup role this year. At age 26, he’s younger than a lot of the defensive tackles hitting the market, too. Aside from them, two former Saints defensive tackles — John Jenkins and John Hughes — could do well.

Jenkins has most recently played for Chicago and might be too heavy for the Zimmer scheme, but he’s been capable, even as a pass-rusher, and wouldn’t lose too much effectiveness shedding weight to add quickness. Hughes is a hybrid tackle who could play either spot and often did for New Orleans last year.

Defensive Ends

The Vikings strongly believe that one can never have too many pass rushers. They draft a super athlete at the position seemingly every year, and gather high-priority free agents to round out that roster. They’ve also grabbed a few veterans from other rosters, like Justin Trattou, Zach Moore and Corey Wootton.

The Vikings emphasize athletes and athletic requirements at each position — something that hangs in the background of almost all of their personnel decisions – but nothing seems clearer than their emphasis on athletic defensive ends to rush the passer.

No athlete the Vikings brought in at the position tested below the 40th percentile in composite athletic scores, and 11 of their 15 most recent acquisitions exceeded the 50th percentile in those scores. Six of them exceeded the 80th percentile.

For now, they put more focus on explosion scores than agility scores, though they could re-emphasize that at any time.

Three of the six defensive ends on the market who meet both agility and broad jump requirements aren’t likely targets: Aldon Smith, Connor Barwin and Arthur Moats. Smith has too many off-field issues, Barwin is close to retirement and Moats may be too old to switch from a 3-4 system to a 4-3 system just to flounder there like he has for the last few years in Pittsburgh.

The other three could pique the Vikings’ interest. Two of them, Lavar Edwards and Kasim Edebali should be on their free agency list in some capacity, though none of them have been very impressive in the NFL. Edwards has struggled to produce pressure on a defensive line that includes multiple, impressive first-round picks and productive pass-rushers.

Edebali has never lived up to his potential, though it’s worth pointing out that he’s outlived his likely NFL life expectancy as an undrafted free agent who not only made a roster, but stuck around for four years. Not only that, he has improved every year. He didn’t do too much for the Detroit Lions last year, appearing only two games with over 15 snaps, but does represent the kind of potential that the Vikings typically invest in.

They are both hitting their late 20s and would be less interesting than the younger, third player who hits the mark in both agility and explosion drills: Terrence Fede, former Dolphin.

Vikings fans may remember him for a fateful blocked punt — and he does have special teams ability — but it’s also worth noting that he might be the best athlete on the free agent market at the position and showcases some pass-rushing traits. Fede won’t turn 27 until the end of the season, so he could fit the Vikings’ pattern of targeting particularly young free agents.

Aside from those six players, only three others meet the Vikings’ requirements specifically in the broad jump and one is a former first-round pick. Marcus Smith might be done with the NFL after being waived by the Eagles and briefly hosted by the Seahawks.

Smith has struggled to produce pressure and has been a liability in the run game, but might have a few more roster stints in him. If they do, the Vikings are probably one of the teams considering him.

The other two are fifth-round picks. Aaron Lynch was regarded as a steal but struggled until last year, where a scheme change suited him well. As a 270-pound defensive end coming out of college, he’s always been more comfortable closer to the line of scrimmage.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Vikings entertain him as a backup to pair with whoever replaces Brian Robison in the long run.

Chris Smith is the other fifth-round pick and comes from the Bengals, making the connection a little too easy. He never played under Zimmer — he mostly played for the Jaguars until last year — but given the similarities in the two defensive systems, he could be well worth a call. Smith saw more playing time last year than ever before, but he didn’t really impress.

His athleticism may be more Margus Hunt than Everson Griffen because Smith has had difficulty turning the corner and it showed in his agility scores. Regardless, he may be worth signing as competition in camp.

All three of those players are young; Aaron Lynch turned 25 in early March, while Chris Smith is almost a full year older. Marcus Smith will turn 26 later in March.

Should the Vikings re-focus on agility-based testing, don’t be surprised if they go after former second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu.

He’s failed to live up to his draft status, but if he can find what worked for him in 2015, where he recorded 48 pressures in only 384 pass-rushing snaps, he’d be a fantastic backup. Having already turned 25 in January, he’s also the most youthful option and will almost assuredly be on Rick Spielman’s rolodex.

They could also go after David Bass a former New York Jet whose 7.07-second three-cone at 262 pounds is very impressive. He’s got a good defensive end frame, and he finally put together a positive year, something he may be able to build off of somewhere else.

Will Clarke of the Buccaneers is also a former Cincinnati Bengal, like Chris Smith. Unlike Smith, he’s spent a few years there and though he missed Mike Zimmer, it’s pretty likely that his being drafted in the third round by Zimmer’s former team just one year removed from his tenure is a good sign that Clarke’s a system fit.

Clarke has never been mistaken for a starter, but he can be effective as a backup. It’s also not impossible that they go after veteran backups like Sam Acho or Chris Carter, though Carter would be a little odd given that he’s managed to stay in the league eight years having only played 360 snaps — there’s not much contemporary film to evaluate him.

Linebackers

The linebackers that the Vikings have added to the 90-man roster from free agency often don’t make it to the regular season 53-man roster. Players like Jason Trusnik, Travis Lewis, Jason Whittingham and Simoni Lawrence aren’t recognizable as Vikings names. Typically, they add players through college free agency after the draft or through the draft itself — though former Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur is an exception to that larger overall trend.

The players they’ve added through free agency that tend to fill out the bottom of the rosters generally compete for special teams spots and are usually in the upper tier of linebacker athleticism — only one has run slower than a 4.70-second 40-yard dash and nearly all of them jump further than the linebacker average in the broad jump.

Kevin Pierre-Louis might be valued too much for the Vikings to sign, but he falls right into the mold of young linebackers with unreal athletic ability that they’ve targeted. He’s only played 533 snaps in the NFL from the line of scrimmage. He has, however, played 877 special teams snaps for the Seahawks and Chiefs.

At 26 years old and with one of the best combines at the linebacker position in a class filled with stud athletes — he stood out in his workouts among athletic wonders like Anthony Barr, Brandon Watts, Ryan Shazier, Telvin Smith and Khalil Mack. He had a faster short shuttle (4.02) and more bench reps (28) than any of them, the second-best broad jump (10’8”) the third-highest vertical leap (39”) and the fourth-best three cone (6.92).

Though he likely won’t live up to the level of play most of those other athletes have reached, he would be a fantastic asset to have on special teams.

There is a linebacker who outperformed Pierre-Louis and his 2014 contemporaries also available in free agency: Korey Toomer. Toomer’s 42” vertical tops all of them, as does his 10’10” broad jump. He also beat all of them with a 4.00-second short shuttle and had the second-best three-cone of that group (6.87 seconds).

Because the Seahawks have been collecting athletes at linebacker, it should come as no surprise that they were the first team to roster them. He spent the first season on the practice squad and the second on injured reserve. After that, he bounced around on practice squads before landing on the Chargers active roster, where he did surprisingly well on the field.

He could end up being a very capable backup and might be able to effectively compete for Emmanuel Lamur’s spot on the roster.

If the Vikings were insistent on finding other elite athletes for the position, they’ll be in luck — this free agency class is full of them at the linebacker position. They could go after Eagles linebacker Najee Goode, who has had nearly 1000 special teams snaps over the past three years. Failing that, Jordan Tripp, at age 27 could also be a priority target.

If the Vikings like Tripp, they may also like former college teammate Brock Coyle, another 27-year-old, high-end athlete. Between the two, Coyle has seen more of the field, but has largely been a liability.

And for more proof that the Seahawks chase athletic linebackers, consider that both Tripp and Coyle spent significant time on their roster.

The third-best tester at the combine, however, is someone many would be surprised to learn is only 27-years old: Paul Worrilow. Worrilow has consistently disappointed as a starting linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, but he still has quite a few years ahead of him and his athletic potential makes him an intriguing backup option who can feature on special teams.

There are also some former Vikings floating around, though it seems unlikely that they would bring back Gerald Hodges, who they intended to cut before trading him away. They could, however, think about bringing back Michael Mauti.

If Minnesota is mostly concerned about youth, then there are two other 26-year-old linebackers available besides Kevin Pierre-Louis. Marquis Flowers is an Arizona alum who managed to run a 4.51 40-yard dash at 250 pounds. He hasn’t seen the field much yet, but definitely fits the mold of a special teams signing. Otherwise, the team could be interested in Jonathan Bostic, who misses some of the athletic requirements the Vikings typically look for but might get those waived on account of his youth and 2013 draft stock.

Cornerbacks

Mike Zimmer has long been known as a defensive backs whisperer and his history with producing top-tier talent at the position is well documented. Nevertheless, the Vikings do need depth at the position, even if Terence Newman returns, and may need competition in the slot with Mackensie Alexander.

If the Vikings wanted to dip back into the well of former Zimmer defensive backs willing to spend their final years in Minnesota, they could do a lot worse than Leon Hall. Hall has experience in the slot, outside and at safety, and his experience at all three positions could be a big asset to the Vikings. At one point, one of the top slot corners in the league, Hall could shore up one of the few weaknesses on the Vikings defense.

If they want to stick with slot specialists, they could look to Brandon Boykin, who was a demon in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles before spending two consecutive seasons on injured reserve after a trade to the Pittsburgh Steelers. If Boykin still has some juice left after those injuries, he could end up being a sneaky signing who starts on opening day.

Boykin, who didn’t perform workouts at the combine or his pro day, may not meet what the Vikings look for in a slot corner, but there are a few who do. While many fans are aware of Aaron Colvin and Nickell Robey-Coleman, there are other slot corners hitting free agency who could upgrade the team. T.J. Carrie from the Raiders was a surprising bright spot on their defense.

Should the Vikings decide that height really isn’t all that prohibitive in the slot — and of the eight slot corners they’ve acquired in the past four years, only Captain Munnerlyn was below 5’10” — then they could decide to go after Daryl Morris.

He hasn’t had a ton of snaps in the NFL with only 844 over four years, but he’s been fairly capable when he’s ended up on the field. Though he’s played a lot of his snaps on the outside, the Vikings might think of him as an inside slot guy — especially given his incredible scores in agility drills, like a 6.82-second three-cone.

If the Vikings wanted to find players who showed potential in their limited time on the field, the Patriots’ Johnson Bademosi might be an option.

Bademosi, who might be more remembered for playing ahead of Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl than anything else — is an athletic freak who ran a 4.39 40-yard dash, broad jumped 10’5”, leaped 40” in the vertical and ran a 6.96 three cone. In that Super Bowl game, Bademosi was only targeted once, so it’s not as if his shining moment is one of embarrassment.

Like with many of these under-the-radar free agents, the Vikings would have to be confident that they’re getting the player the Patriots coveted and not the liability in Cleveland he originally was.

The Vikings could conceivably go after Brice McCain, but he’s been a liability for the Titans and will be 31 years old. They went after Michael Griffin a few years, but he had a number of Pro Bowls under his belt before declining. Instead, someone younger like Dontae Johnson could strike their fancy.

He likely wouldn’t play on the inside, but it’s rare to see a 6’2” corner hit free agency who also meets the Vikings’ requirements at cornerback. The former fourth-round pick didn’t do all that well in his first year as a starter, but he could be interesting depth to add to training camp.

Along the same lines, the Vikings could go after recently released Deshawn Shead, another athletic corner who managed a 6.76 three-cone at 220 pounds, along with a 38” vertical jump.

If they were truly committed to rehabilitation projects, figuring out how to fix Phillip Gaines and Blidi Wreh-Wilson might be worth it. Both have been disappointments to their franchise but could be the kind of players who benefit from a system change. If nothing else, they may be able to see what they get out of Byron Maxwell, too.

Safeties

The Vikings simply haven’t acquired that many new safeties since Mike Zimmer took over, relying on the combination of Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo to hold down the fort with occasional draft picks like Jayron Kearse or undrafted free agents like Anthony Harris staying year after year and pushing out the few safeties who do get a chance to be new members of the Vikings.

Minnesota only rosters five or six safeties in camp, so don’t expect too many new signings here, especially if the Vikings like who they can get in undrafted free agency.

Don’t be surprised if the Vikings bring back Antone Exum, who spent the final two months of the season with the San Francisco 49ers. Exum actually made the 53-man roster and only lost a spot because the Vikings wanted to promote Kyle Sloter up to deal with the injury to Sam Bradford — so the Vikings didn’t quite give up on him, especially as he did well in camp at the nickel position.

They could also look to bring in another veteran who knows the system. They’ve done this with Terence Newman, Shaun Prater, Chris Crocker and Taylor Mays — even Troy Stoudermire had experience with Mike Zimmer’s Bengals before signing with Minnesota. This time it could be Reggie Nelson who spends his final years in Minnesota.

Nelson has clearly declined, but put together a fairly good year for the Raiders nevertheless. The Vikings could bring him into camp both as insurance at defensive back, but also as a way to help teach the system to any other potential newcomers.

Otherwise, they may be willing to pursue the any of the three most athletic safeties on the market, Cody Davis, Steven Terrell and Shamarko Thomas. Davis jumped through the roof with a 41.5” vertical and ran a blazing 6.77-second three-cone. Thomas ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash and is one of the few people to ever jump further than 11’0” in the broad jump.

Thomas, a fourth-round pick, disappointed for the Steelers and lost two consecutive competitions for the starting job before an injury landed him on injured reserve. He ended up in camp for the New York Jets before signing with the Buffalo Bills, where he ended up only taking 17 snaps. All in all, Thomas hasn’t proven to teams in camp that he can play, but at least has looked alright when he’s had limited time on the field.

Steven Terrell tore up his pro day with a 4.34 40-yard dash, 10’10” broad jump, a 6.84-second three cone and a 38.5” vertical. He bounced up in and out of the Seahawks’ 53-man roster after spending a year on the Jaguars’ practice squad and some offseason time with the Texans.

Most recently with Kansas City, Terrell hasn’t seen much of the field except in 2016, where he saw more than 500 snaps. He was largely alright, with a bad game coming in the playoffs against a record-setting Falcons offense. There’s a lot of good there to unlock, however, and he was mostly reliable during the regular season.

Davis, an undrafted free agent, has seen more recent time on the field and has done well for himself as a cover safety, though has been a liability in run defense.

If they wanted to target the youngest safeties in free agency, Akeem King of the Seahawks and K.J. Dillon are available. King didn’t sign a reserves/futures contract with the Seahawks like most practice squad adds, and won’t be 26 until the season starts. K.J. Dillon is even younger and won’t turn 25 until May.

King fits the mold of all-around athlete that the Vikings like, and also happens to have the length and size that the Vikings have occasionally targeted at the position. At 215 pounds and standing 6’2,” King has a lot of what the Vikings might have looked for when they drafted Jayron Kearse.

K.J. Dillon isn’t quite the same — he isn’t as clear of a Vikings target outside of his age. He did pretty poorly on his agility drills and had fewer than 15 bench press reps, one of the few things the Vikings seem to draw a line in the sand on when it comes to safeties. That said, his preseason performances have been pretty good and he may have caught the eye of a few teams.

The best performing safety on the market that isn’t on any “top 100” lists might be Keith Tandy, who’s coming off of a down 2017 but can be proud of his 2013-2016 performances. Almost all of it comes in a backup role, but he’s had a few starts here and there and looked pretty good, especially in 2016.

Over his career, he only allowed a passer rating of 57.4 in coverage and has eight career interceptions despite only starting 15 games. That’s not quite a full accounting of his contributions, as his 1437 snaps translate into about 30 full games — still a more than respectable showing.

Though his 40-yard dash time is average (4.51 seconds), his 10-yard split is one of the fastest at the position and he followed that up with a fast three-cone (6.91 seconds). Tandy could end up being a surprise free agent for someone.


Catch Arif every week on The Zone Coverage Football Machine

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