EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was a busy man during training camp this past summer when he locked up Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph to multiyear contract extensions.
Three defensive starters … three cornerstones … and three moves that already appear to be paying off.
Spielman spoke to a small gathering of Twin Cities media members on Wednesday for his annual bye week session, and said that he's been pleased with how each has performed since signing his deal.
"Even when they got their extensions and the big contract, their level of play actually increased. That's what you're hoping when you do sign guys to extensions," Spielman said. "That is built off of the leadership of Coach Zim' in the locker room and the leadership and the chemistry we've tried to put together.
"We try to reward guys that fit all of that 'smart, tough, love and have passion for the game'" Spielman added, referencing a mantra of Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "I think those three guys are pretty good examples of guys getting rewarded their play, and then taking their play up another level when they did get rewarded."
Griffen is having perhaps the best season of his career. He has 10 sacks this season, which is tied for the second most in the NFL. He has tied a franchise record along with Jim Marshall and Jared Allen with eight straight games with a sack, and he has already topped his sacks total of 8.0 from last season.
The Vikings defensive end leads the Vikings with 12 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He has 30 total tackles (according to coaches' tally).
Rhodes has grown into one of the league's top shutdown corners. He is usually tasked with shadowing an opponent's top wide receiver each week. He has 27 total tackles (according to coaches' tally) and has an interception to go along with five passes defensed.
Joseph has 49 total tackles (according to coaches' tally), including 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. The nose tackle is the man in the middle of Minnesota's defensive line and is a pivotal reason why the Vikings rank fourth in rushing defense, allowing just 81.4 yards per game.
Spielman said that the Vikings front office — a group that includes Rob Brzezinski, Executive Vice President – Football Operations, and Assistant General Manager George Paton — took a different approach than normal with the trio of extensions to help navigate the salary cap.
"We've always been a team, from a business principle, that we always wait until they enter the last year of their contract," Spielman said. "The three guys that we decided to extend — Linval, Everson and Xavier — as we cap planned out for the next three years, we knew some of the other young talent that was coming up.
"We decided to (have) an exception to our business rule by trying to get some of these guys locked up a year earlier, that way we can use up some of that cap space this year," Spielman added. "It gives us a lot more flexibility as far as keeping some of our players next year when we start the process of some of those guys."
Spielman said the unorthodox decision has paid off so far, as Griffen, Rhodes and Joseph are key pieces to a defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed per game (282.1) and fourth in points allowed per game (16.9).
"You never like to go against your business principles, but because of the number of players we have coming up, we don't want to lose our core players," Spielman said. "I think it is a chance to reward players who have done things the right way, not only being productive football players on the field but being the type of people we want in the locker room as well."
An impact rookie
Dalvin Cook hasn't played since Week 4 after suffered a season-ending ACL injury, but Spielman was asked what he learned about the Vikings rookie running back on Wednesday.
His initial answer was succinct.
"That he was a pretty good running back," Spielman said with a laugh.
Spielman then went into detail, saying the former Florida State standout who rushed for 354 yards and two scores in three-plus games brought a dynamic attitude to the offense.
"He gave us a lot of explosive plays on offense," Spielman said. "I thought from the first game to the second game to the third game (and on), you could see his playmaking ability and how everything started to jell with him."
Spielman noted that while rookie running backs can usually get by on athleticism and instincts early on, they sometimes tend to struggle in pass protection.
Cook didn't, which was an area that impressed Spielman.
"What surprised me the most was how well he did in pass protection and how smart he was to pick up the schemes and the adjustments and the calls," Spielman said. "There's a lot of calls and adjustments being made at the line of scrimmage, what he did in that area … it showed our staff and us that he can definitely be a complete back. Not only a first-down back, but an every-down back in this league from everything that he was showing."
When asked if he had a hunch during the draft evaluation process that Cook would turn out to be so special, Spielman rattled off a list of areas the Vikings went through in their process of scouting Cook.
"I'll just say," Spielman said, "that we knew he was an intelligent football player."
On Kai and kicking
Kai Forbath has been with the Vikings almost a year. After signing with Minnesota on Nov. 15, 2016, the kicker made all 15 of his field goal tries last season. He has been accurate again this year, making 21 of his 22 tries. Since arriving in Minnesota, Forbath has been successful on 36 of 37 kicks (97.3 percent).
Spielman praised Forbath's consistency and said the UCLA alum has also shown great range in hitting all five attempts from 50-plus yards since last season.
"He went through ups and downs early in his career and seems to have found his groove here," Spielman said. "It's a pretty good, comforting feeling that when the guy goes out there to kick a field goal, he's got, I think, a 97 percent chance of making it.
"I don't know what he is right now, but he's pretty good plus-50 as well," Spielman added.
Forbath has made 23 of 30 extra point attempts from 33 yards (76.7 percent), but Spielman said the team is working to improve in that area.
"Maybe the PATs could be a little more consistent … we're trying to tell him that they're field goals and that we don't have PATs in the NFL anymore," Spielman said. "He's done a phenomenal job [overall], and we're very fortunate to have him."
View images of Vikings new running back Mack Brown from his days with the Redskins.
The NFL trade deadline came and went Tuesday afternoon, with the Vikings deciding to stand pat with their current roster.
Spielman said he fielded calls but didn't want to part ways with various key pieces on the team.
"There's a lot of talk. Nothing that really developed much from our end," Spielman said. "We don't have any significant, significant injuries. We're very excited about a lot of the young guys. Some of the teams that called, a lot of them were aimed at our younger players, and I'm not a big fan of giving up any of our younger players."
The Vikings did add a player earlier in the week when they picked up former Washington running back Mack Brown.
Spielman said that because of Cook's injury, the Vikings appeared to be a little shorthanded in the backfield. But the addition of Brown via the waiver wire and not through a trade helped solved that issue.
"The one area we were a little worried about was depth at running back," Spielman said. "If something ever happened to Latavius [Murray] or [Jerick] McKinnon, and we have C.J. Ham, who has played halfback and fullback … but when Mack Brown became available over the wire, we saw Washington had released him over the weekend, we had followed him for the past two preseasons in Washington because of the depth they had at running back.
"We didn't feel we had to go out and trade when we were able to land him off the waiver wire [Monday]," Spielman added.