Vikings focusing on fit to avoid another big free-agency mistake
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When NFL free agency last launched in July, teams were stuck in an unusual predicament: rushing to sign players sight-unseen.
Not only did teams have little idea if a guy was in shape after the lockout, coaches in some cases didn't have a full grasp of whether the player was willing and able to fit in their schemes.
"That's part of what we're doing with this free agency," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said recently.
"This year, the fact that you can bring a guy in, talk to him, eyeball him, whereas last year, you were doing it on the phone just a few days before camp opened and you were saying, 'Hey, sign on the dotted line.' But that's a big part of it, man -- just finding the guy that's a right fit for what you do and not making those mistakes in free agency."
Case in point: Remi Ayodele, the big nose tackle who had started the previous two seasons in New Orleans. The Vikings gave him a three-year, $9 million contract that included a $3.565 million signing bonus and so far have gotten little in return.
It wasn't that Ayodele was wildly out of shape when he joined the Vikings for training camp in Mankato. It was that coaches didn't know he would oppose playing from a tilt technique like Pat Williams, who was so big and athletic he could practically cover two gaps in a one-gap system and allow the entire front to be more aggressive against the run.
Instead, Ayodele preferred to anchor from a shade technique and never got the sort of penetration that had made Williams so disruptive for years. Ayodele ended up playing only 253 of 1,058 gradable snaps on defense (23.9%) and was credited with 22 tackles (11 solo, one for loss).
"Pat did such a great job for us for so long," Frazier said. "We got spoiled. We think Remi's going to improve and he'll get better. But that position is key to our success up front when we are trying to defend the run."
Issues like that are part of why general manager Rick Spielman made a point of spending a day before last month's NFL scouting combine with Frazier and other coaches to let them show cut-ups and explain exactly what sorts of skills they're looking for at each position.
"The most important thing is, 'We like this player, but is he going to be able to do what we do from a schematic standpoint?'" Spielman said. "If a coach says, 'Yes, he can fit' then that gives you all the more insurance to go with the move or says he doesn't fit, then you don't want to bring in a player who doesn't fit as well.
"That's part of the process, too, and that's why the coaches have to be an important part of the process. We understand the basics of our scheme, but the coaches have the vision of how they're going to utilize the skillset within the scheme."
The Vikings appear poised to give Ayodele another chance. He's due another $750,000 deferred portion of his signing bonus on Thursday, and the other players who got significant time at the position last season, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
A thin free-agent market at the position got thinner on Monday when the New York Jets re-signed veteran Sione Pouha to a three-year deal. Paul Soliai, who spent the past five seasons with Miami, is expected to get a big day as a 3-4 nose tackle.
The one veteran who might be intriguing to the Vikings in free agency is Brodrick Bunkley, a one-technique nose tackle type who was traded to Denver shortly after the lockout lifted last summer after five seasons in Philadelphia.
"He's got some talent," an AFC personnel director said. "He's quick. He can get up the field and be that penetrator. He's probably the best guy out there that could fit that role. The other guys as you go down are kind of aging or just kind of workman, high-motor, rotational kind of guys that are left out there."
The Vikings also seem likely to address the defensive tackle position in April's draft. Veteran three-technique Kevin Williams has shown signs of decline at age 31, depth has thinned out and the interior line's underwhelming performance against the run last season had a negative impact on the linebackers as well.
"It makes a difference, what happens up front," Frazier said. "There's no question about it, in particular with the nose and the three. Those are the guys that protect our linebackers, and when E.J. (Henderson), when Chad (Greenway) are playing their best, even Erin (Henderson), Ben Leber when he was here -- when they're playing their best, it's because our front is playing extremely well.
"We've got to get the most out of Kevin, the most out of Remi, and our ends are playing good football for us. We've got to get our nose and three playing at a high level."