Captain Munnerlyn quietly arrived at Bank of America Stadium for a free-agent visit without anyone noticing. That was, until a former Vikings teammate, receiver Charles Johnson, accidentally let it slip during his own Carolina Panthers introductory news conference.
“I actually just saw him upstairs,” Johnson told reporters.
“He’s a snitch,” Munnerlyn joked during a phone interview last week. “He actually broke the news and told everybody I was in the building. Nobody knew I took a visit up there.”
Departures of Vikings unrestricted free agents began in earnest with Munnerlyn, Johnson and left tackle Matt Kalil signing in Carolina just hours after the opening bell. All-Pro returner Cordarralle Patterson recently signed with the Raiders, helping to bring the number to eight — more than the previous two offseasons combined in Minnesota. And future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson is headed elsewhere.
While many of the exits can be explained — Munnerlyn, for instance, has a home 15 minutes from the Panthers’ stadium, and Kalil’s brother, Ryan, plays for Carolina — the swinging doors at Winter Park still might have exceeded expectations, even with 15 unrestricted free agents.
It was General Manager Rick Spielman who pointed to his strong track record of keeping wanted talent when discussing Kalil before free agency. The Vikings, with a roster of young franchise players nearing potential contract extensions, did anticipate some of those players leaving.
“It didn’t catch us off guard,” Spielman said last week. “We knew who we had to target starting into free agency. We knew some of the players that did go elsewhere we were not going to be able to keep. You can’t keep everybody.”
Some were shown the door. Others, like Munnerlyn, were wanted back but didn’t fit financially into the Vikings’ long-term vision for the roster. Still, the number of departures is unusual.
A few replacements were found immediately. Tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers signed deals. Running back Latavius Murray came on board, which meant the end for Peterson, who’ll turn 32 Tuesday.
But at least four players — Munnerlyn, Kalil, punter Jeff Locke and linebacker Audie Cole — left offers on the table from Minnesota to seek better deals or fits elsewhere, according to league sources.
“It was close enough for me to consider [returning to Minnesota],” said Munnerlyn, who also had interest from the Colts and Eagles. “They really wanted me to come in and take like a one- or two-year deal and I really wasn’t looking for that.”
Without a longer deal offered, Munnerlyn had an easier decision signing a four-year contract to be the Panthers’ nickel cornerback. The Vikings effectively made their decision a year ago with Munnerlyn, now 28, still on the roster when they drafted second-round cornerback Mackensie Alexander to eventually take his spot.
Munnerlyn might be the Vikings’ biggest loss. Terence Newman, 38, or Alexander will be expected to fill Munnerlyn’s important role. Newman is the only unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Vikings so far, on a one-year deal last week.
“Bringing back Captain was a positive for them if they could do it,” said Sean Kiernan, Munnerlyn’s agent at Select Sports Group. “But at the same point, they had other needs they felt they needed to address first, and they were very open with us on that.”
After addressing offensive tackle, the Vikings needed depth at defensive tackle.
Spielman prioritized a veteran addition by signing former Packers first-round pick Datone Jones, who is also represented by Kiernan. With Jones, the Vikings did the poaching of another team’s coveted free agent since the Packers aggressively tried to keep him, Kiernan said.
Jones signed with the Vikings only days after Riki Ellison, father of ex-Vikings tight end Rhett Ellison, alleged through now-deleted social media rants that Minnesota had “toxic leadership” and grueling practices that have led to these free-agent departures. Ellison signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Giants after five seasons in Minnesota.
That was not a deterrent for Jones, who said he chose Minnesota because of the coaching staff.
“We look at it from this perspective: If you’re going into free agency, you’re looking for teams that have the ability to win now and the resources to consistently be there long-term,” Kiernan said. “I think the Vikings fit both those molds.”
The shine hasn’t worn off the Vikings’ young and talented core — which remains intact — after the team fell from NFC North champions to 8-8 and missing the playoffs.
“I’ve heard people talk about how does it affect the culture? I think if you keep the nucleus together, I think culture stays,” said former 13-year Colts center Jeff Saturday, now an ESPN analyst.
Spielman did that but wanted new talent as well for an offense that ranked 28th last season. However, offensive talent wasn’t as easy to reel in.
He made a push to sign ex-Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, according to a league source, before Jeffery chose a one-year deal with the Eagles. The Vikings reportedly sought coveted right tackle Rick Wagner, who signed with the Lions, and reportedly made a competitive offer to tight end Jared Cook before he signed with the Raiders.
Between the players they lost and the ones on which they missed, the Vikings didn’t get quite the facelift they wanted. But free agency certainly leaves them with a new look.