By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have been looking for a tough, play-making defensive back to cover slot receivers ever since they parted ways with beloved veteran Antoine Winfield before last season.
Captain Munnerlyn is ready to fill those shoes.
The Vikings agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the free agent cornerback on Thursday, continuing the team's aggressive pursuit of defensive help in free agency. Munnerlyn played the first five seasons of his career for the Carolina Panthers, where he returned five of his seven interceptions for touchdowns.
"We have a new coaching staff in Minnesota and I'm excited to get to work with these guys," Munnerlyn told The Associated Press.
After signing a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the Panthers last year, Munnerlyn posted career highs with 74 tackles and 3½ sacks. He also returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns and parlayed that into a deal that could be worth as much as $15 million with the Vikings.
Munnerlyn, who will turn 26 next month, has scored four defensive TDs in the last two years. He was a seventh-round draft choice after leaving South Carolina after his junior season, and the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Munnerlyn has been proving that he belongs ever since.
"Everybody looks at my size and says, 'Oh man, he can't play. He's too short to play outside corner, or he's too short to do this," Munnerlyn said in a conference call later Thursday. "That's the biggest key with me, man. I was just trying to go out there and prove I can be an every-down corner, that I can make plays and bring toughness to a team."
Winfield knows a thing or two about that. The diminutive cornerback spent nine seasons with the Vikings, establishing himself as one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs in the league. Munnerlyn said early in his career his coaches showed him game tape of Winfield.
"I kind of stole some of his game and brought it to my game," Munnerlyn said. "I don't hit as hard as he does. He can really bring it when he tackles. But I try to go out there and make the tackles and make plays just like him."
The Vikings desperately needed another veteran cornerback to add to a young, thin defensive backfield. After cutting Winfield last summer, the Vikings moved Josh Robinson from outside to the slot cornerback. Robinson struggled mightily in the role and former second-round draft choice Chris Cook proved unreliable and unremarkable on the outside. Cook is a free agent.
Munnerlyn said Vikings coaches plan to start him on the outside opposite promising youngster Xavier Rhodes, then move him inside in nickel packages on passing downs. He was a part of the second-ranked defense in the league last season under Ron Rivera. He said he saw similarities to the system new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer will employ in Minnesota.
"He's a gritty, tough player and he can play all over the place — cornerback, nickel or inside," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said last season. "He's good in pressure and you can tell he's a headsy, smart player. Anytime you are playing against those guys it's kind of like the Ronde Barbers of the world where you know there is a level of intelligence. You want to know where he is on the field."
The Vikings wanted to do a longer-term deal with Munnerlyn, but Munnerlyn pressed for a three-year contract to give him one more shot at a big payday.
"To get another contract before I'm 30, that was the key," Munnerlyn said. "Just to go out here for three years and see if I can win them over a little bit more, get an extension after year two or something. Just try to go out here and make plays and win games."
Munnerlyn is the latest big move in a series of them to kick off free agency for the Vikings. They re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen with $20 million in guaranteed money and signed defensive tackle Linval Joseph away from the New York Giants with a five-year deal that could be worth $31.5 million. They also made two smaller deals on Thursday, bringing back reserve defensive tackle Fred Evans and signing former Chargers cornerback Derek Cox to one-year deals. All the moves are aimed at bolstering a defense that was 31st in the league last year.
"I'm sure with these signings and with these people they (brought) in we'll ranked in the top 10," Munnerlyn said.