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Zimmer focused on defense

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Zimmer spent most of his 21 years in the NFL as a defensive coach, so it is no surprise where he focused his attention in his first 40 days as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

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“Any time you finish 31st in the league, you’ve got quite a few holes,” Zimmer said of the Minnesota defense, which was worst in the NFL in points allowed. “We’re going to need quite a few good football players.”

Zimmer hinted that the Vikings’ personnel is versatile enough to use multiple fronts. He coached the 3-4 defense with the Dallas Cowboys and a 4-3 as defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Defensive end Jared Allen, an unrestricted free agent, would not fit as an outside linebacker. He is limited laterally but explosive off the ball. If the price is right, the Vikings would still like to bring him back. Other moving parts on the depth chart in the front seven are edge rusher Everson Griffen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams — a prime five-technique defensive end candidate in a 3-4 alignment — and defensive tackle Fred Evans.

“It’s all about getting the right players that fit the system we’re looking for,” Zimmer said when asked specifically about Allen, who turns 32 next month. “We’d love to sign all of our guys. We understand that we’re not going to be able to sign them all. Hopefully we can get worked out with him, and we’ll see as it goes.”

General manager Rick Spielman described Zimmer as a grinder who is leaving no stone unturned in assimilating to his first ever head coaching job, even making it look natural. Zimmer said there are still some rough edges to smooth out in the new routine and additional responsibilities that come with being the all-powerful coach on staff.

“The biggest thing for me right now has been the schedules,” Zimmer said. “It’s just a pain in the rear end that you’re trying to do schedules for training camp — when to do red zone, when to do all the situations that come about. That is a part that has been difficult for me.”

He said the Vikings are not ruling out keeping quarterback Christian Ponder, but wants to see him on the field.

“He’s got a great arm, he runs good, he’s a bright guy,” Zimmer said. “Everyone wants him to live up to expectations. ... I’m not a patient person with anybody. I just think once we get on the field we’ll figure all those things out.”

Spielman said the Vikings will meet with Matt Cassel’s agent. Cassel ended the season as the starter but opted out of the second year of his contract.

With or without Cassel, could Ponder be the starter for the Vikings in 2014?

“If he’s the best player,” Zimmer said.

The Vikings are making an appointment with representatives of Matt Cassel during the combine this week. Cassel voided the 2014 season on his contract and a $3.7 million salary. He could return and was endorsed last week by running back Adrian Peterson as his preferred starter. That doesn’t mean the Vikings won’t kick the tires on other veterans, including Michael Vick, Josh McCown and Mark Sanchez, if he’s released by the New York Jets.

Minnesota is interested in bringing Cassel back while looking at “everything” out there. Spielman said the quarterback class is deep, with many flavors.

The Vikings will focus “heavily on the draft” with Turner piloting the process. His input is viewed as significant by Spielman who was with the Miami Dolphins organization when Turner was with the team and said he considers Turner an expert at the position.

“Christian Ponder is the only quarterback we have under contract from last year,” Spielman said. “The encouraging thing was, he came out of that dip and played very well out of that dip. ... He just hasn’t been that consistent. He has shown flashes of it.”

Ponder could return but it would take a surprising set of circumstances to make that reality.

“I saw what Norv did with Jay Feeley in Miami,” said Spielman, who also pointed to Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer exceeding expectations with the Cleveland Browns in 2013. “(Turner) has a history of getting quarterbacks to not only play very good, but beyond what maybe you thought.”

Spielman said the Vikings will not force drafting a quarterback with the eighth overall pick and said he would consider dealing. That would be nothing new. Minnesota made trades to acquire a second first-round pick each of the past two drafts.

“I would love to move down in the draft, just because of how deep this draft class is,” he said. “But if we feel that strongly about a guy at No. 8, we’ll take him.”

Free-agent update

Scheduled to be unrestricted in March

Defense: DE Jared Allen; DT Kevin Williams; CB Chris Cook; DL Everson Griffen; LB Desmond Bishop; LB Marvin Mitchell; DT Fred Evans; DE Justin Trattou

Offense: LG Charlie Johnson; RB Toby Gerhart; WR Jerome Simpson; OL Joe Berger; OT J’Marcus Webb; WR Joe Webb; QB Josh Freeman.

Team Needs

Quaterback: It’s by far the biggest hole on a team with many of them. Christian Ponder isn’t the answer, so it’s time to start over. Again.

Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, a rookie in 2013, is a future league standout, but at least one more elite corner is needed to survive in NFC North.

Linebacker: Whether the new staff uses a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, the Vikings are in serious need of a fast, forceful, instinctive playmaker at linebacker.

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