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Shamar Stephen — aka ‘The Big Fundamental’ — ready to start wherever Vikings need him

Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Shamar Stephen is shown during a 2017 game against the Buffalo Bills. Stephen signed a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks last offseason but has returned to the Vikings in 2019 after agreeing to a three-year, $12.45 million contract. Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- After what general manager Rick Spielman called a one-year vacation, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen is back with the Vikings. Both sides agreed to a three-year, $12.45 million deal on the opening day of the NFL’s legal tampering period.

“We used to call him ‘The Big Fundamental’ when he was here because he did everything right,” coach Mike Zimmer said, giddy about getting Stephen back in the mix. “He worked hard. He helped in the running game. He worked every single day on his craft of trying to rush the passer.”

All those things will be on full display now with Stephen expected to take over for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson as the team’s starter at the three-technique position.

While the Vikings would have loved to keep Richardson this offseason, they knew they probably couldn’t afford him. That proved to be true when Richardson signed a three-year, $37 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, a number the Vikings couldn’t come close to matching.

“From a cap standpoint it would have been very difficult to try to fit him and (Anthony Barr) in,” Spielman said. “If we weren’t going to be able to potentially sign (Richardson) back, then (Stephen) became a priority because he knows our system, we know what type of players he is, we know what type of person he is, and we can plug and play him right away.”

Taken in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Stephen found a niche as a rotational player with the Vikings before signing a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks last offseason. He started 14 games for Seattle last season, playing mostly nose tackle, while dabbling at the three-technique.

That said, when the Vikings came calling this offseason, the 28-year-old Stephen said it was an easy decision to come back.

“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 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.”

It sounds like the Vikings missed him, too.

“We are talking about doing some different things defensively this season, and being able to have a guy with his versatility, along with Linval (Joseph) inside, I think it will help us change some of the packages we run,” Zimmer said. “He works real hard. You don’t really notice him. He just plays really, really good every time he goes out there. It was really important, and again, some of the things that we’re thinking about doing and implementing this spring, I think it’s going to be really critical to have a guy like him.”

Looking ahead to next season, Stephen most likely will line up next to Joseph on a regular basis, and it sounds like he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been playing (the three-technique) my whole life, so I feel comfortable there,” Stephen said. “I’ve got great coaches that can help me, and (defensive line coach Andre Patterson) is probably one of the best fundamental-wise and technique-wise to teach me what I need to do. I’m not worried about it at all. Whatever they want me to do, I’m willing to do.”