EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. The Minnesota Vikings were content with patiently waiting out the opening weeks of free agency in March, not willing to jump into the bidding for high-priced free-agents that could provide an immediate boost to a team coming off a 3-13 season.
General manager Rick Spielman had a plan and was sticking to it. While big-name, and big-money, players headed elsewhere, Minnesota stayed in the background seeking bargains. In the first wave of free agency, the Vikings seemed to have only one player they wanted to act aggressively on -- John Carlson.
The search for another pass-catching tight end demonstrated the desire to further develop offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's preferred two tight-end sets. Carlson, the team thought, would be a good complement to second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph and give second-year quarterback Christian Ponder more options.
"You've got the young quarterback," Spielman said at the draft. "We were able to go out and get John Carlson. So we're trying to accumulate that talent on offense that will be playing together the next four or five years. I know we do have to address the defense and we will continue to look at that and address that as we continue through this draft, but to say that you can get an offense that is going to be playing together the next four or five years, that continuity and everybody knowing what everyone is doing hopefully will pay benefits for us."
Carlson still isn't sure what his role will be in Minnesota with Rudolph also looking to be more involved in the offense. He wasn't worried about his role either. Carlson, like many of the league's other tight ends have seen the increased relevancy of the position in team's passing games. Carlson, Rudolph and other tight ends around the league noticed how the New England Patriots employ Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They've seen the versatility and big-play ability of New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley.
Musgrave, Carlson, Rudolph and the Vikings have many of those same visions dancing in their heads with the ability to pair Carlson and Rudolph, both former Notre Dame standouts.
"I'm excited because Kyle is here and to be able to play with another tight end like that, you've seen it around the league, it's possible to use two guys at the tight end position on the field at the same time and to have success," Carlson said. "So I'm excited about that. I'm excited about how young the offense is and what they're building here. I'm excited about the running game, like I said. What my role will be, I'm not sure, but my goal is always to be a well-rounded tight end and contribute in the running game and contribute in the pass game (by) catching the ball, then to pass block when I'm asked to. So if I continue to improve in those areas, my role will kind of be revealed as the season goes, as our offense develops and identity."
An identity for the offense would be a big step for Minnesota. A midseason switch at quarterback from Donovan McNabb to Ponder changed the dynamics of the offense. Star running back Adrian Peterson dealt with injuries. Ponder and Rudolph had rollercoaster rookie seasons. Starting receiver Bernard Berrian was cut. His replacement in the starting lineup, Michael Jenkins, missed the end of the season with a knee injury. To top it off, the offensive line never gelled.
Musgrave came from Atlanta and was expected to make the tight ends a major part of the passing offense. In the end, Rudolph and Visanthe Shiancoe combined to catch just 62 passes. Shiancoe and his 36 catches, 409 yards and three touchdowns were allowed to reach free agency and the Vikings didn't have much interest in bringing back the 31-year-old.
Instead, Minnesota signed the 28-year-old Carlson to a five-year deal worth a reported 25 million. Carlson, a second-round draft choice by the Seattle Seahawks in 2008, had 137 catches in his first three seasons. In one respect, Carlson might fit Spielman's philosophy of trying to buy low after Carlson missed the entire 2011 season after surgery to repair torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Carlson says he's completely healthy now and Spielman saw the talent on game film.
"The thing that I think was most appealing was, we had our meetings with Bill Musgrave and the offensive staff, is having a player and how they can utilize his skill set and how they can utilize Kyle Rudolph's skill set in games," Spielman said after the team signed Carlson. "John gives you a lot of versatility from being able to split out wide and put in as an H-back to also on the line of scrimmage."
And his familiarity should shrink any adjustment period. A Litchfield, Minn. native, Carlson was open to the idea of returning home when approached by Spielman. Add in the growing Notre Dame contingent -- four other players, including former Irish teammate John Sullivan -- and he could feel right at home soon.
"I came in in March and signed and kind of left town and it didn't really feel real," Carlson said. "So now to get back here and be working out and meet the guys and get in the meeting room and do all that stuff, it feels good."
The Vikings made Carlson their top target in free agency. Now they are hoping he'll be a reliable target on the field.
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