Fresh off an improbably successful 2012 regular season, Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his personnel staff are already weeks into evaluating the roster and deciding who Minnesota must target in free agency.
As the Vikings players and coaches get ready for Saturday night's wild card playoff showdown with the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the front office is forced to look two moves ahead of Saturday's game. With one eye on the current team, the other is already looking ahead to 2013 and how they can make Minnesota a better team.
The Vikings have 16 players on their current roster who will be free agents at season's end, so they'll have plenty of decisions to make on current personnel alone.
League-wide, the 2013 free agent class is not a strong one, but does have some options at positions the Vikings certainly need to upgrade.
It will be interesting to see how aggressive the Vikings are after their biggest free agent signing of 2012, John Carlson, proved to be a complete bust.
Let's take a look at the free agents the Vikings should be targeting in their 2013 offseason plans.
Whatever the Vikings decide to do with Percy Harvin this offseason will have a domino effect on all of their other moves.
2012 was another strange year for the mercurial wide receiver. He left a mini-camp and demanded a trade, only to recant that a couple of days later.
He then exploded into the 2012 season, leading the NFL in receptions through nine weeks and playing like an MVP candidate before leaving a game against the Seahawks with what was thought to be an ankle sprain.
Stories of feuds with head coach Leslie Frazier and a lot of misinformation about the injury came to a head when the Vikings placed Harvin on injured reserve December 5, shelving him for the season.
The organization has maintained that the injury was more severe than when first diagnosed and that Harvin and Frazier are fine.
Only those involved know the truth, but the bottom line is that Harvin is due to be paid, with his current contract set to expire at the end of 2013, when Harvin will make just $1.55 million after being paid $915,000 before incentives this year. That can't sit well when Harvin knows the Vikings are paying John Carlson $5million a season.
The Vikings must decide if they want to pay Harvin the big bucks. Are his on-field talents enough to outweigh the headaches he tends to cause off the field?
Harvin is a unique talent and the Vikings won't be able to immediately replace him through free agency or the draft. He's caused enough problems that other teams will be hesitant to offer equal value in any trade.
The Vikings need to pay Harvin and keep him around. He's earned it.
The Vikings had a gaping hole at wide receiver after the 2011 season and they chose to fix it on the cheap.
They signed up-and-comer Jerome Simpson, who was coming off a decent season in Cincinnati, and drafted receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in the middle rounds.
The Simpson signing was viewed as a smart one, as he flashed a ton of potential and was very cheap at just 1 million dollars for a one-year deal.
Halfway through the season, the deal was looked at as a colossal flop.
Now, at the end of the season, although Simpson was certainly not what anybody hoped, he flashed just enough potential (11 catches in his last three games) to be signed to another small contract.
Consider that Simpson had better numbers than either Robert Meachem or Laurent Robinson. The Chargers signed Meachem to a 4-year, $25.9 million deal last year and the Jaguars signed Robinson for five years and $32.5 million. Now those are colossal flops.
We'd tip our caps to the Vikings front office, but then we look back at John Carlson's eight-catch, 43-yard season.
The Vikings need all the help they can get at receiver and Simpson is athletic enough to warrant another "prove it" contract.
He battled through injuries for most of 2012 and never got sidetracked when he was on the field, but he knows the system and is worth another low-risk deal.
The Minnesota Vikings' passing offense must be upgraded if they are expected to be a serious contender in 2013.
That said, the Vikings must be very careful as to how they go about upgrading it. Free agency is always a tricky science in the NFL. Signings viewed as steals in March may look pretty stupid by December. It's a roulette wheel that can be very costly if you join the high stakes table.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jumped in with both feet forward last offseason, signing two prized free agents in Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. The Bucs spent $102 million dollars on those two players and finished 7-9.
Jackson did exactly what he was signed to do, but Nicks only played in seven games before being hurt for the season. Jackson performed, but was he worth $55 million for five years?
Not when you consider that the Colts resigned Reggie Wayne for $17.5 million for three years. Ask the Chargers and Jaguars if they feel like signing Meachem and Robinson was worth it. Both signed huge deals and returned basically nothing.
The Vikings should be embarrassed for signing John Carlson to a five-year, $25 million dollar deal and getting almost no return for their money.
Leave it to the Patriots to have made perhaps the most sensible wide receiver signing last off season in acquiring Brandon Lloyd for three years and just $12 million. Lloyd pitched in with 74 catches and 911 yards on a team that has not placed an emphasis on acquiring receivers since the free agency before their 2007 perfect season.
So where does that leave the Vikings when looking at the 2013 free agent crop of receivers?
The best available are Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. Bowe is the best of the bunch, but he'll also cost the most. If the Vikings decide not to resign Harvin, they must land a top-flight receiver.
If they do re-sign Harvin, they'd do better to look to the draft to get a top flight receiver rather than overpaying for middle tier free agent.
Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre would be a huge upgrade at either guard spot for the Minnesota Vikings.
Levitre is just 26 years old and won't command Carl Nicks-type money, but he's highly esteemed and will probably require a contract in the 5-6 million a year range. They'd certainly get more for their money than they got out of a similar contract with John Carlson.
The Vikings learned a few years back what a big free agent signing can do for an offensive line when they inked guard Steve Hutchinson to a massive deal.
Levitre is no Hutchinson, but he is one of the best young guards in the game and could combine with Matt Kalil to give the Vikings one of the best left sides in the NFL.
Some guys are just meant to play for one team their entire careers. Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams is one of them.
The Vikings have a two-year option on Williams after this season, but it's for nearly $17 million and there is no way Minnesota can afford that.
Williams wants to finish his 10-year career with the Vikings and will certainly agree to a two-year deal for far less money. He hasn't been great in 2012, but has been more-than-serviceable and looks to have at least another season or two left in his tank.
The Vikings will clearly look to draft their defensive tackle of the future in the coming draft and Williams will be an invaluable resource in mentoring said new draft pick a la Letroy Guion and Christian Ballard.
Williams is a consummate professional and the kind of player the Vikings have centered their resurgence around.
Williams and the Vikings deserve each other for at least another season.
Playing for just $565,000 in 2012, Jasper Brinkley deserves a raise. Erin Henderson was paid nearly $2 million and deserves a bump up as well. Neither one of them set the world on fire in 2012, however, so the Vikings must be judicious when it comes to signing them to new deals this offseason.
Brinkley will probably be the easier to sign and probably won't cost too much money. Henderson could be tricky, though, as he chafed at last year's one-year deal and will certainly want more money in 2013, even though his level of play may not warrant it.
The free agent linebacker class is very thin for 2013 so, if a team is desperate for linebacker help and offers Henderson a huge deal, the Vikings need to wish him good luck and part ways. At this point in his career, he is a decent albeit replaceable piece of the defense.
It's certainly been an up-and-down four years with the Minnesota Vikings for right tackle Phil Loadholt, but he has earned himself another contract from Minnesota after his 2012 season.
Loadholt is still a work-in-progress and he's never going to be a superstar but, at 6'8", 350 pounds, he's a solid right tackle who will hold down his starting job for at least a few more seasons.
Adrian Peterson's 2000-yard season owes a lot to the line in front of him and, while the unit featured no Pro Bowlers, it's pretty clear that the Vikings are stronger at tackle and center than they are at guard.
The common thread among all the best offensive lines in the NFL is continuity. There are only so many Matt Kalils to go around. You must fill out the rest of your line with your best options and Loadholt has reached a comfort level with John Sullivan, the tight ends and certainly with Adrian Peterson who he also played college ball with.
Loadholt deserves a raise, albeit not a huge one, and his spot in the Vikings starting lineup.