MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering Michael Johnson's longstanding relationship with Mike Zimmer, and the fact the former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end nearly wound in Minnesota with Zimmer when he hit free agency last year, it didn't take a sleuth to figure out the Vikings might have interest in adding Johnson to their roster once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him on Wednesday.
A league source said on Wednesday that Johnson would start talking to teams on Thursday, once he had finished up exams at Georgia Tech. It didn't take the Vikings long to jump to the front of the queue on Thursday. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Johnson's first visit will be to Minnesota.
Johnson, who had 11 1/2 sacks in 2012 in Zimmer's defense, was a perfect fit in the scheme for more reasons than just his ability to rush the passer. He often lined up as a six-technique end on the right side of the Bengals' line, beating blockers and collapsing the line on the way to the quarterback. That's how Zimmer wants his defensive ends to play, and adding Johnson to the Vikings' defense would provide them a prototypical defensive end for the scheme. It's also worth noting that Johnson wouldn't count against compensatory pick calculations for 2016, since he was released by the Buccaneers, and in light of the fact Tampa Bay owed him $7 million guaranteed -- with no offset language -- he might be willing to take a smaller salary in 2015 from another team.
The one point to consider here is, adding Johnson to the Vikings' roster would give them three defensive ends who are used to starting: Johnson, Everson Griffen, and Brian Robison. But that's a minor consideration in the grand scheme of things. Robison is going to be 32 in April, and has no guaranteed money in his deal after this season. He has a $2 million base salary guarantee set to kick in today, with the remaining $2.15 million of his salary scheduled to become guaranteed on July 1. The Vikings have some flexibility with Robison's deal, and though they likely wouldn't be bringing Johnson in to play right end, he'd give them an impressive rotation at defensive end, and could step in to a left end starting spot if the Vikings decided to reduce Robison's role at some point.
It's interesting to see how quickly things have come full circle. Johnson seemed like an odd fit for the Buccaneers, who favored the Cover-2 scheme the Vikings used to employ under former coach (and current Tampa Bay defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier. The Vikings made a run at Johnson last year; Zimmer said in a radio interview that Johnson "wanted to be with me," but chose to sign closer to home in the South. The Bengals figure to be in play to bring Johnson back, and the Atlanta Falcons -- who are desperate for pass-rushers -- could make sense, as well. But it's telling that Johnson's relationship with Zimmer has steered him toward the Vikings first. And a year after giving Griffen big money instead of Johnson, the Vikings might be able to get them both.