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Coaching connections drive Vikings' early free-agency moves

MINNEAPOLIS -- By the sheer number of players they signed, Wednesday might have been the Minnesota Vikings' most active opening day of free agency this decade. The Vikings agreed to contracts with four players from outside the organization -- guard Alex Boone, linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Travis Lewis and safety Michael Griffin -- while finalizing a new one-year deal for guard Mike Harris.

And yet, for the Vikings, the moves carried little of the inherent uncertainty that might typically accompany players from other teams.

We should start by acknowledging the obvious: The Vikings didn't exactly swim in the deep end of the free-agent pool. Of the four players with whom they agreed, only Boone represents a significant investment, with a four-year, $26.8 million deal that includes $10 million in guaranteed money over the next two years. Lamur and Lewis figure to be depth signings, and the 31-year-old Griffin comes to the Vikings as a street free agent after the Tennessee Titans released him in February.

But the Vikings' risk factor was also diffused by something coach Mike Zimmer discussed at the NFL combine last month, and something that seems to be at the heart of their free-agent philosophy: They signed three players with whom their coaches had already worked, reuniting Boone with offensive-line coach Tony Sparano, Lamur with Zimmer and Griffin with defensive-backs coach Jerry Gray. A number of the Vikings' other targets -- George Iloka and Reggie Nelson among them -- had played for Zimmer in Cincinnati, and one of the wide receivers they'd inquired about (Oakland's Andre Holmes) was in the organization as an undrafted free agent back in 2011.

Plenty of teams pursue players with whom they're already familiar, but as the Vikings put together a veteran coaching staff -- Zimmer's group includes three former head coaches, another former coordinator and three other assistants (Andre Patterson, Mike Priefer and George Stewart) with more than 10 years each in the NFL -- they've got a broad base of institutional knowledge that goes beyond a player's game tape. The Vikings believe they can minimize risk, to some degree, when they've got prior experience coaching, teaching and pushing a player, and the makeup of their staff has helped them establish a network of sorts. As the Vikings look for ways to upgrade the roster -- particularly on the offensive line -- they seem to have a natural jumping-off point with players their staff already knows.

The Vikings' moves on Day 1 of free agency don't figure to be the final ones they'll make this week, and they've still got enough money to pursue upgrades in some targeted spots. If and when they make additions to their roster, it stands to reason they'll return to the connections their coaches already have. It's an advantage they derive from a wizened staff, and the Vikings showed again Wednesday how central it is to their free-agent approach.