EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Everson Griffen matured enough from an unsettling start to his career that the Minnesota Vikings were confident enough to hand him a hefty new contract last year that kept him off the free agent market.

This season brought the latest evidence of Griffen's growth: His teammates chose the defensive end as one of the four captains for 2015.

''He cares an awful lot about the Vikings, he cares a lot about this organization and he cares about being a good football player,'' coach Mike Zimmer said. ''I bet you three years ago or whatever he probably wouldn't have gotten the most votes.''

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Griffen, now, has become a leader of this team: not only in sacks but in the locker room, too.

''I've been waiting for this all my life,'' Griffen said, adding: ''I'm not going to say that I knew I was going to do this, but I did know because I know what type of guy I am.

''When you have people believing in you and coaching staffs believing in you and players believing in you, it just makes you that much more passionate and makes you want to go out there and give them that much more of your effort.''

Linebacker Chad Greenway, who shares the captaincy with Griffen, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson, was in the middle of answering a reporter's question last week about the tenacity of the defense when he began unprompted to praise Griffen.

''He's just changed the approach of being the leader. He's stepped up and taken huge strides in that aspect,'' Greenway said. ''I think a lot of times that chip he always carries on his shoulder really kind of falls on the D-line, and they've been playing like that the last few weeks.''

Griffen tied for ninth in the NFL with 12 sacks last season, his first as a starter after getting a five-year contract worth as much as $42.5 million with $19.8 million in guaranteed money. The commitment raised eyebrows around the league, given Griffen's part-time status at the time and his not-so-recent trouble off the field.

Even Griffen later acknowledged the fame and fortune came too fast for him to handle it well. Twice in a three-day span in Los Angeles, the winter after his rookie season, Griffen was arrested for unruly behavior.

The Vikings stuck by him, though, and really won him over when his mother died suddenly in 2012. His disinterest in testing the market last spring was one sign of the strides he's made since he left USC one year early and was drafted in 2010 by the Vikings in the fourth round.

Griffen, who's tied this season for fifth in the NFL with three sacks, is still a goofball of sorts, a boisterous kid at heart whose voice is often one of the loudest in the Vikings locker room.

The earnestness he puts toward his responsibilities within the defense, though, becomes clear during regular sessions with reporters when he cites coach-speak cliches: reading his keys, executing the calls and staying hungry, for starters.

After an embarrassing season opener at San Francisco by the Vikings (2-1), Griffen was one of the most vociferous self-critics of that performance, vowing to lead the bounce-back. There he was, after a decisive victory Sept. 20 over Detroit, sounding like a coach again.

''I've got faith in my guys,'' he said. ''I knew they were going to come out ready. They prepared well.''

Now married with children, Griffen is the guy serving as a guide to the other, younger players on what has the potential to be one of the NFL's best defenses this season.

''It's all about making the right decisions and doing the right things and when guys need help,'' Griffen said, ''just helping them along and not shying from that and just being involved. When you don't know the answers you find somebody else who does.''

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