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Updated: March 10th, 2014 11:36pm
Zulgad: Vikings' 3 top priorities as NFL free agency opens Tuesday

Zulgad: Vikings' 3 top priorities as NFL free agency opens Tuesday

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by Judd Zulgad

Let the fun begin.

After a three-day period in which the Minnesota Vikings, and other NFL teams, could negotiate with free agents, those players can be signed to contracts starting at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The Vikings will enter free agency with plenty of salary-cap room (the figure was at more than $41 million last week) and an equal amount of needs.

Of course, some of that money already has been spent.

The Vikings reportedly agreed to give defensive end Everson Griffen a $42.5 million, five-year contract that includes $20 million guaranteed. Quarterback Matt Cassel will get a two-year, $10 million deal, and linebacker Larry Dean and cornerback Marcus Sherels, both restricted free agents, have agreed to terms.

Linebacker Jasper Brinkley will return to the Vikings after a one-season stint with Arizona, although he won't break the bank or even come close.

So how should general manager Rick Spielman and new coach Mike Zimmer spend the remainder of owner Zygi Wilf's money?

Here are three areas that should be focused on and, yes, they are all on the defensive side of the ball. That's what happens when you give up an NFL-worst 30 points per game and rank 31st in passing yards allowed.

Cornerback: If the Vikings are being realistic with themselves, they will admit they have 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes and nothing else at this vital spot. There has been talk that Tennessee corner Alterraun Verner might be a target, in part because he played for new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray with the Titans. Gray served as that team's defensive coordinator.

Here's the key for the Vikings: They wouldn't be wrong to make the corner position their top priority in free agency and also use the eighth-overall pick in the May draft to take another corner.

Too much, you say? Playing in a pass-happy league, and in a division that has three very good to outstanding quarterbacks, you can never have enough cornerbacks. Look at how much the Vikings will be in nickel, or even a dime defense next season, meaning there could be four cornerbacks on the field at times.

Zimmer's defense will not be the Tampa-2 system that melted down so badly on the Vikings last year, but that doesn't mean the team won't need physical corners who can play man coverage.  And, please, don't suggest that keeping the underachieving Chris Cook around would be a good idea or that Josh Robinson is an option inside in the nickel. We've seen enough.

No matter what system he employs, it's not as if Zimmer is going to want fewer corners.

The Vikings knew going into free agency that fixing this issue wouldn't be cheap and they received a reminder of this when the Green Bay Packers retained Sam Shields by giving him a four-year, $39 million deal that includes a $12.5 million signing bonus.

That's OK. If the Vikings can get the right corners it will be money well spent.

Nose tackle: There are some who want the Vikings to retain veteran Kevin Williams and move him from the 3-technique, where Sharrif Floyd will start in 2014, to the nose.

Williams, though, is listed at 6-foot-5, 311 pounds, making him far from the best option for this spot. What Zimmer really needs, and will want, is a nose tackle who can fill space and bring athletic ability to the middle of the line.

Pat Williams was a mammoth man but what made him so good was that he had the athletic ability and feet to make plays and yet he ate up (no pun intended) a ton of space and thus occupied blockers.

That was a big reason why the Vikings' run defense was so good for so many years, starting under defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin in 2006 and continuing the next year when Leslie Frazier arrived.

Last season, the Vikings' run defense finished in the middle of the NFL, giving up 110.4 yards per game.

The Vikings already have been mentioned in connection with Miami Dolphins free-agent Paul Soliai (6-4, 340 pounds) and the Miami Herald is reporting he's considering three teams. The Atlanta Falcons are involved in the bidding and Soliai won't come cheap.

Middle linebacker: Brinkley's return does not mean he will be the starter in the middle, it just means he will get a chance to compete for the job.

One has to figure that Audie Cole and, perhaps, even Michael Mauti, a seventh-round pick in 2013 out of Penn State, could get in the mix.

One thing to keep in mind, the switch from a Tampa-2 means that the middle linebacker position will call for a different skill set. In the Cover-2, the middle linebacker was responsible for dropping into coverage, which made the made the decision to select Brinkley in the fifth round of the 2009 draft a complete mystery.

Brinkley is a downhill, run-stopping, beat the stuffing out of you linebacker. That might work for Zimmer but odds are he would love to have a better alternative at Winter Park.

The Vikings were believed to have interest in D'Qwell Jackson but he signed a four-year, $22 million deal with Indianapolis after being let go by Cleveland.

On Monday, the Vikings reportedly had former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain in for a visit. McClain has also worked out for the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills in the past week.

The 29-year-old returned to the NFL last October after spending 10 months recovering from a bruised spinal cord he suffered in December 2012. He played in 10 games at both inside linebacker spots in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme last season.

One thing the Vikings know is that they only have one true starting linebacker right now (Chad Greenway on the strong side) and that the other two positions are wide open.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd