The Minnesota Vikings bottomed out in 2011, turning in a 3-13 season just two years removed from being a game away from the Super Bowl.
GM Rick Spielman was facing the tricky decision that can make or break the careers of those in front-office positions—go for the quick fix via splashy free agents or realize that you have a pretty big rebuilding effort ahead of you and spend wisely and build through the draft.
The Vikings were a ways off from being a playoff contender, so Spielman chose wisely. He'd spend a little money in free agency but not profligately. The draft would be the most important avenue for acquiring new players to build around.
Still, there were moves to be made via free agency, and Spielman was busy in the signing period, adding depth and experience to several areas where the Vikings needed help.
Believe it or not, we're at the quarter pole of the 2012 season, and the Vikings unexpectedly sit atop the NFC North with a 3-1 record.
The free agents' input has been minimal, so far, but bigger things are expected from several of them.
Here's how the Vikings' free agents have performed, so far.
The Vikings spent big money on the Litchfield, Minn., giving him a five-year, $25 million deal in an effort to give the team a two-headed monster at tight end, mimicking the success the New England Patriots have had with their two tight ends.
It hasn't happened, so far.
Carlson had some nagging injuries in training camp that kept him from getting any traction in the Vikings system. Ideally, the Vikings see Carlson as another version of Kyle Rudolph—a big, athletic option for Christian Ponder in the short-to-medium passing game.
So far, the Vikings have gotten zero return on their investment. Carlson has been back healthy for three weeks now, but he only has one catch, for minus-one yard. It's far too early to condemn the signing, but for a guy who's battled injuries the last couple of years of his career, he's going to have to start producing, or it's going to look like a giant waste of money.
The Vikings took a chance on the speedster who had to sit out the first three games of the season while serving a suspension for being arrested on marijuana charges. Simpson showed early on in camp that he could be a deep threat who could stretch the field for the Vikings offense.
While far from an accomplished player in the league, Simpson had shown flashes of brilliance with the Bengals, and he proved to have enough potential that the Vikings were willing to sign him to a one-year deal.
Simpson finally got on to the field Sunday against the Lions and had an immediate impact. Simpson led the team with four receptions for 50 yards, including a crucial 27-yard gain late in the fourth quarter that moved the Vikings out from deep in their own territory and picked up three more downs to kill the clock.
Simpson showed what some speed on the outside can do for an offense, as the Lions took two big pass-interference penalties where the Vikings picked up 32 and 27 yards.
Simpson will be a huge upgrade to anything the Vikings have had on the outside for a couple of seasons. He may be Ponder's third option after Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, but just the threat that Simpson is out there should give space to all the other receivers as well as Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart in the running game.
Grade: C (We have to downgrade him for the suspension, but this grade will certainly go up as the year moves on.)
The linebacker was signed to add depth to a thin linebacker corps, and he's been pressed into starting duty with Erin Henderson missing the last two games with an injury. Mitchell has filled in well, as the Vikings defense has had two of the best games in years with Mitchell in the lineup.
He hasn't had his name called a lot, but he hasn't showed up in too many negative plays either. Mitchell is a glue guy who brings experience to a young defense that needs it. Mitchell has filled in well and has proved to be exactly what they hoped for when they signed him, a dependable backup who can step into the lineup at a moment's notice and do the job.
Schwartz was brought in for a lot of the same reasons as Mitchell, although there was a thought that Schwartz might challenge for the starting right guard spot, according to KFFL.
That didn't happen when Schwartz battled injuries in camp, and Brandon Fusco turned out to be far more ready to start than anyone had anticipated. Schwartz is a valuable backup as he's able to fill in at a couple of spots on the line when healthy. So far, the Vikings haven't needed his help.
Zack Bowman and Chris Carr:
The Vikings signed two veteran cornerbacks in an effort to bolster a historically bad secondary from a year ago. Both Carr and Bowman had been NFL starters at some point in their career, but neither had done enough to make huge impressions in the league.
The Vikings ended up cutting both Bowman and Carr after giving them plenty of opportunities to crack the starting lineup. The fact that neither free agent made the team is ultimately a good thing for the Vikings, as draft picks and free-agent signings proved to be more valuable to the club. It was worth a shot to bring them into camp, but neither panned out.
So, the Vikings have had a mixed bag from their free-agent signings, but Simpson looks to be a huge win that will outweigh their misses. Carlson is a talented player who's had success in the league, and the Vikings won't give up hope on him.
The overall free-agency grade is a "C" but should climb higher by season's end. The good news is that the rookie class is in line for an "A" grade, and the rebuild might not take as long as initially thought.