The Minnesota Vikings are in dire need of some personnel changes before they enter the 2012 season. Before they can even think about the 2012 draft, they must first consider how they can address their weaknesses through free agency.
When a team drafts a specific player, it does endless hours of research on a player to find out if he can fit the system for what the team needs him to do. Can he run the right kind of routes? Can he run block or pass protect better? Is he better under center or in the shotgun?
These are all questions that get asked about a given prospect before a team even thinks about drafting a player.
Of course, the same scrutiny is—and should be—applied when examining potential free agents to sign as well.
While every team in the NFL goes through this process—some more successfully than others—many analysts overlook the simplest of details when trying to predict what free agents will land wherever they may.
Here's a look at five free agents that already fit the system of what the Vikings do.
When you think of the dirtiest players in the NFL, Cortland Finnegan is a name that might come to the forefront of your mind—but that doesn't necessarily make it true.
Finnegan may have a bit of a mean streak in him, but this scrappy corner has been one of the league's best for years and is often overlooked for the reason that he likes to get under the skin of his opponent.
The rough bump-and-run style of coverage that Finnegan has come to be known for would be just about the best addition this Vikings secondary could make this offseason.
In a Tampa 2 defense, the two high safeties are the last line of defense against the pass while the corners try to jam receivers underneath to try and prevent any sort of deep threat from getting the ball. Finnegan's physical style of play would make him an ideal corner for this defensive scheme.
Finnegan is 5'10" and 192 pounds—the ideal size for any corner in the NFL. Not only has he shown that he can run with the biggest and baddest of receivers, the 27-year-old has intercepted 14 passes in his career as well.
Assuming that Chris Cook will be back in 2012, a pair of Cook and Finnegan would be perhaps the roughest bump-and-run duo in the NFC North. Add a healthy Antoine Winfield in the slot, and you have the recipe for a much improved CB corps.
I'll stick with the secondary for a moment, but for this slide, let's move to strong safety.
FS Husain Abdullah has been medically cleared to keep playing after his third concussion in two seasons. Presumably, Abdullah will resume his role at starting free safety, where he was really coming into his own before being injured.
Vikings SS Jamarca Sanford is an excellent special teams player—and I hope the Vikings keep him around for that role—but he has no business starting in the NFL at strong safety.
Though the secondary was decimated by injuries, the Vikings have needed to find an answer for both safety positions since Darren Sharper left for New Orleans. Now that they believe they have a starter in Abdullah, they must look to find a starter opposite him.
The best option via free agency would probably be Oakland's Tyvon Branch.
Along with defending the deep ball, the thing the Vikings DBs struggled with the most was tackling in the open field—and that should never happen. Far too often were opposing receivers and running backs allowed extra chances after the catch. When eight of the Vikings' losses came down to a margin of a touchdown or less, bad tackling becomes more of an issue than you might think.
Tyvon Branch doesn't have those issues. The 25-year-old has recorded 297 solo tackles in his four-year career and added three forced fumbles and as many recoveries—along with three interceptions as well. The 6', 205-pounder has no problem sitting back in a deep Cover 2, but is lethal when coming up in run support.
The Vikings need a guy like this to bring up the overall value of the secondary. Getting a few sure tacklers and hard hitters can turn a defense around faster than you could believe—just ask the San Francisco 49ers.
When I wrote my last free agency article, I didn't even bother writing about Stevie Johnson—mainly because I don't see any scenario where he doesn't end up back in Buffalo next season. Now that I'm writing a "what if" kind of article, I get to have fun talking about a young receiver like Johnson who would make an enormous impact on the Vikings offense.
Stevie Johnson is not a top WR in the NFL—at least not top-10. But there are two things that he does extremely well.
1) Blow the roof off a defense with his game-changing speed.
2) Remind the defense of how me blew off their roof with his game-changing speed—by use of some of the most creative touchdown celebrations since Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
When the Vikings had Sidney Rice, they certainly had a deep threat, no argument there. What they didn't have, however, was an appropriately arrogant receiver that the fans could fall in love with. Not since Randy Moss have the Vikings had a player that they could love because everyone else hated him—and as a fan, I miss those days.
Johnson's ability to stretch the field would complement Percy Harvin very nicely. Johnson demands the No. 1 corner against most defenses, which would free up a lot of space underneath for Harvin to get separation and make runs after the catch.
The Vikings have been set up to run the ball so that they could set up the pass for quite some time now. With a receiver than can truly stretch the field, they would finally have a two-dimensional offense that could also set up some delays to go along with the play-action.
Adding a guy like Stevie Johnson would help this team out in many more than just one way. He would be a refreshing face to see in purple for fans.
Atlanta's Curtis Lofton is another guy that I just don't see hitting the open market, but he is a guy that would be fun to speculate about should he be allowed to test the waters of free agency this offseason.
Lofton has been one of the more consistent linebackers in the NFL since being drafted in 2008. In 2011, Lofton recorded 147 tackles on a defense that wasn't very good for a lot of the season. Along with being very good against the run, Lofton intercepted two passes and defended seven passes, which shows that he can be very useful in coverage as well.
In a Tampa 2, like the Vikings run, the MLB is perhaps the most important position. Not only does he have to be quick and stout against the run, the MLB has to be able to help out against the deep ball because he has the responsibility to cover the middle of the field underneath the two deep zones.
For a long time, the Vikings have been able to rely on E.J. Henderson to get this job done for them. The former second-round pick out of Maryland has been as consistent as they come for a majority of his career. Unfortunately, after receiving a career-threatening injury, Henderson's ability slowed a bit.
Henderson is still excellent against the run and has even been selected to the Pro Bowl since coming back from his injury. Against the pass, however, he has become a major liability and has clearly lost a step or two since being injured.
Now that he's a free agent, it's hard to imagine the Vikings rushing out to re-sign Henderson—let alone allow him to start anymore. That being said, a guy like Curtis Lofton would be a dream come true for the Vikings staff.
The most pressing need for the Vikings this offseason is going to be their offensive line. Even if they end up taking Matt Kalil No. 3 overall in the draft, there are still at least two other liabilities to deal with.
While LG Steve Hutchinson has expressed his intentions to return for 2012 despite rumors of his retirement, the Vikings may want to replace him sooner rather than later. Along with the aging Hutch is the ever-revolving door at RG and the holding machine that is Phil Loadholt—and that's if they draft Kalil.
The offensive line is the most crucial group of players on that side of the ball—and for good reason. Not only do the offensive linemen create running lanes for the ball-carriers, they must be relied on to protect the QB long enough for the receivers to create space to make a catch. If the offensive line is bad, the offense as a whole will be bad.
Assuming the Vikings start rebuilding their offensive line this offseason, a guy like Carl Nicks may be high on the list—but trust me, just about every other team in the NFL would like to employ the services of the young All-Pro guard as well.
Though he isn't necessarily under the radar, Baltimore's Ben Grubbs might be a nice alternative to Nicks—and would actually make more sense for the Vikings.
Nicks may be an All Pro guard—that's all fine and good—but one observation I'd like to point out is that the New Orleans Saints aren't exactly what you'd call a "running team."
Grubbs, on the other hand, has spent the last few seasons creating running lanes for Ray Rice, one of the league's best up-and-coming RBs. If the Vikings were able to get Grubbs creating opportunities downfield for Adrian Peterson, the Vikings' ground game could return to its former, but not-so-distant glory.
Grubbs is no slouch against the pass either, he would make an excellent improvement over Anthony Herrera and he would also provide the durability to actually give the Vikings' line depth for a change—I know, it's weird, right?
If the Vikings add only one offensive lineman this offseason, Grubbs should be the one that gets the vote. He is versatile, but being that he is such a solid run-blocker, he would make an incredible addition to a struggling line.
Thanks for reading.
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