EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have implemented a draft, develop and re-sign philosophy toward roster building in recent years.
They've done so again this year with the dramatic re-signing of Anthony Barr, a restructuring by Everson Griffen and return of Shamar Stephen, a seventh-round selection in 2014 who is returning to Minnesota after a year in Seattle.
General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday that they are looking forward to seeing Stephen don the Purple again.
"Another young player that we developed," Spielman said. "He went on vacation for a year, but we were able to get him back, and he was another critical piece that we wanted to really hone-in and focus on once we kicked off this free agency."
Stephen has started 20 of 52 games for the Vikings and played an important role in the defensive line rotation in 2017. Minnesota led the NFL in opponents' third-down percentage (25.1), yards per game (275.9) and points per game (15.9).
He totaled 142 tackles (77 solo), a sack, two tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries during his first four seasons with the Vikings, earning a great nickname along the way.
"We used to call him 'Big Fundamental' when he was here because he did everything right," Zimmer said. "He worked hard, he helped in the running game, he worked every single day on his craft of trying to rush the passer."
Stephen is able to play nose tackle, where the Vikings already have Linval Joseph, and the 3-technique that is tasked with rushing the passer more frequently.
The low-key New York native said the familiarity with the Vikings organization, level of comfort and belief in defensive line coach Andre Patterson made entering free agency for a second year in a row a little easier. This time, he inked a multiyear deal.
"I would say I made a pretty quick decision, but it was the best decision for me coming back to a place where I'm comfortable at," Stephen said. "The culture here is amazing from the top down, from the ownership to the coaches and to the players around me. It's a very, very great group, and the chemistry here is what I missed."
Stephen is the third defensive tackle who has come to Minnesota by way of the Seattle Seahawks in just one trip around the sun.
Last year, the Vikings signed Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal on the second day of free agency (March 16).
Stephen and veteran defensive tackle Tom Johnson subsequently headed to the Pacific Northwest.
When Seattle released Johnson last September, the Vikings brought him back to Minnesota. He became a free agent when the new league year began.
Richardson's signing of a multiyear deal with Cleveland this week created an opening.
"I knew Sheldon, who was a tremendous player for us last year, from a [salary] cap standpoint, it was going to be difficult to try and fit him and Anthony in," Spielman said. "Sheldon was everything and played to what his contract [was] … and he got a very nice contract from the Cleveland Browns. If we're not going to be able to potentially sign him back, then Shamar became a priority because he knows our system, we know what type of player he is, know what type of person he is and we can plug-and-play him right away."
Zimmer said he is excited for his staff to pick up where they left off with Stephen and continue with Barr.
"You know, one of the great things about being able to be a coach is you get to teach guys and develop them, learn about their personalities, learn about how to try to get them better every day," Zimmer said. "And for us to be able to have a guy like Anthony Barr, who's come in here and, really, Shamar – they both came in the same draft class, so Rick obviously did a great job picking that year, especially. But for guys like them to come in here and be able to be with us for maybe their entire career is something that we really look forward to.
"They're both great people, and that's kind of the type of players that we're trying to get here," Zimmer said. "Good players who want to learn, get better, be great people in the locker room and help each other get better. It's really a great day for me to be able to get these two guys back. They'll always be Vikings, and they'll always be Zim' guys."
Spielman opened his sit-down session with reporters by extending congratulations to Richardson and running back Latavius Murray, who signed a multiyear deal with New Orleans.
"Both of them were critical parts of our team, great human beings," Spielman said. "It's tough to see them go, but those guys were the type of players and the type of character people that we want to build and continue to build this team with, so I want to send — from our ownership group and organization and personally myself — congratulations to them and wish them nothing but the best going forward."
Easton in the mix?
Spielman also was asked about the status of Nick Easton, who missed all of the 2018 season because of a neck injury that he suffered in training camp.
Although Easton hit free agency, Spielman said the Vikings are speaking with his agent regarding a possible return.
"One of Nick's traits is that he's a good athlete, and he's tenacious as a football player," Spielman said. "He's coming off a pretty significant injury, and I won't talk about where he is medically. But his physical traits that we look for fit very well from a schematic standpoint than maybe some of the people we looked at in free agency.
The start of the new league year — and the two-day negotiation window that precedes it — causes quite a frenzy each year.
The Vikings were active at the opening bell in 2018 to sign Kirk Cousins and Richardson, but the team's salary cap room creates a need for patiently rounding out the roster this year.
"This is only the start of free agency," Spielman said. "There are plenty of things to come between, potentially, now, the draft, and also after the draft. So you never stop building your roster, and we'll continue to monitor and look at things as we progress down the road here. But this is just the start of putting together the 2019 Minnesota Vikings."
Spielman said the Vikings began the Monday after the 2018 season ended, going through "hundreds of scenarios" with the understanding that not everything would be resolved once free agency opened and likely not even after next month's draft.
"The whole process is understanding what our philosophy is on who we're bringing in … 'Are we going to bring in older players?' Or, 'Are we going to bring in players we have a history with coming out of their first contract?', like we did with the Linval Josephs of the world.
"There's a lot of things that can happen between now and the draft," he added. "There's a lot of things after the draft that can happen. You're always adding, and you never know opportunities that come your way on a potential trade or whatever. We'll just see how everything evolves. But it never ends, I'll say that."