The free agency market will be particularly important after the Vikings let go of 12 players, even with the eight picks they have in the draft. In all likelihood, Minnesota will only be able to go after one relatively high-value free agent and then grab a few prospective depth vets.
With three starters gone from the roster, the Vikings need to make sure they make a splash in free agency and shore up the back end of the roster in case the injury bug strikes. With needs at guard, defensive tackle, middle linebacker and wide receiver, the Vikings have a lot cut out for them.
None of the cuts or decisions not to re-sign would happen without sending feelers into the free agent market, so Step 3 and Step 4 are fairly concurrent.
Regardless, at least one, if not two, needs should be met in free agency.
Unfortunately, the middle linebacker class in free agency and the draft are thin. Knowing this, it could be a bit puzzling to allow Brinkley to hit the market, but nearly any other free-agent linebacker is an upgrade, so long as they can maintain the coverage responsibilities of a Tampa-2 middle linebacker.
Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is an excellent linebackers, but he doesn't fit well in the current system. Ellerbe is a liability in coverage and his stiff hips can't turn well enough to track running backs or tight ends, particularly up the seam.
The Vikings lose two linebackers in this blueprint, so they could target one in free agency and another in the draft. With depth in the draft at defensive tackle and wide receiver, they might want to take a shot in the third or fourth round at signing a cover linebacker. To compete with that draftee, they should sign Brad Jones, currently an inside linebacker for the Packers.
While his backpedal isn't amazing, he can turn and run with any number of tight ends or running backs, including the quick Chris Johnson. Defending the seam is something the Vikings had difficulty with last season, and Jones is better than most inside linebackers with that responsibility.
Inside linebackers run a bit more than outside linebackers, so he would likely take up what looks to be $3.6 million in cap space. Jones hasn't proven himself as a consistent producer, so he won't get an extraordinary number of offers from other teams, especially because this is the first time he's played in a consistent non-pass rushing role (his last three seasons were as an outside linebacker in a 3-4). His coverage ability is surprising, to say the least, and the Vikings might need to coach him out of a purely downhill style.
His versatility is useful, and he could provide defensive end depth in a pinch.
At guard, there's the possibility that the Vikings could look at Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills, but they have consistently shown a preference for run-blocking guards over pass protectors, and Levitre is not well known for his ability to grade the road. He fits in a zone-blocking scheme well, but given his high price tag for a skill set that doesn't fit what the Vikings necessarily want, they will likely pass.
Brandon Moore from the New York Jets is certainly an appealing option. He's performed at a high level for years, but doesn't get much recognition for it. Marshal Yanda and Jake Scott were in a similar position as they received new contracts, but had wildly different cap hits. Yanda pulled in $4 million, while Scott didn't even hit $1 million.
The Jets have a lot of issues evaluating their quarterback, but they are very willing to pay their talented offensive linemen. In 2010, they were in the running for the highest-paid offensive line, consuming a cap space of $22.1 million. Brandon Moore might therefore run at $4 million, in which case the Vikings should probably pass.
Instead, they might be able to grab San Diego guard Louis Vasquez for $2 million. Aside from a slump at the end of 2011, Vasquez has consistently been a good guard, balanced in his ability to clear the road for runners and protect the pocket. In 2012, he only allowed two sacks, which is one more than in 2011. Extraordinarily strong, he was voted the AFC West rookie of the year in 2009, but has gone unnoticed by the media.
This gives the Vikings $4.6 million to sign other free agents. Given the nature of the 2013 draft, they will likely find their DT and WR starters there, but will want to grab some depth to fill out their roster before April.
Knowing that they have another $8.1 million of carryover to play with, the Vikings could target a good tight end to fill out a complete roster, but it would create big issues for the 2014 season.
If they were to go that route, Martellus Bennett would be the best option, as he has a very good balance of effective blocking and extremely useful receiving. Unfortunately, he would fetch a high price, especially knowing that he's willing to give the Giants a "hometown discount".
Instead, the Vikings will want a pass-receiving tight end who can come cheaply to replace John Carlson. Delanie Walker will be on the minds of a few fans, but he dropped nearly a third of the passes thrown in his direction this year—a staggering amount, according to Pro Football Focus, given the rates of the other tight ends who have butterfingers.
He's been better in other years, but Walker has probably increased his price with this Super Bowl run. Instead, targeting a tight end like Dennis Pitta or Fred Davis would be smart. Pitta produced more than 600 yards, so he might come at a higher price than Davis (325 yards), but Davis had a very productive 2011 that might make him attractive to other teams.
Either way, one of them should be available for less than $2 million, perhaps around $1.8.
They could also seek to attract young depth at wide receiver, given that they'll need to make sure they grab a linebacker in the early rounds instead of picking several receivers early. A receiver like Domenik Hixon would look like a good fit, given his smart route-running, quick feet and fast straight-line speed. Unfortunately, two ACL tears in two years will make him a risky investment. It might be worth it if the Vikings could convince Hixon to sign for less than $2 million in the first year, but that seems unlikely.
Instead, they should target a receiver like Emmanuel Sanders—a restricted free agent will be more difficult to get—who has a lot of ability but hasn't been able to get on the field due to the talent in front of him (Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown). Sanders is a willing blocker who can run a variety of routes and should be able to fit in either at split end or flanker in the base offense.
He shouldn't command as much as many think, given his low production. Historically, receivers with his production level should typically consume a little less than $3 million of cap space, but the Vikings can effectively plan for a little more. He's worth a bit more than most receivers with his history of production. If the Vikings can get him for $3.2 million of cap space, it's worth it.
The elephant in the room, however, is the worrisome quarterback play. With only $1.4 million left, the Vikings might have to dip into their carryover and start getting creative with their contract structuring, especially as they work on negotiating extensions for 2014 free agents Percy Harvin, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Chris Cook.
Bringing in a veteran quarterback to compete with Christian Ponder or back him up will be important for any run the Vikings want to make at the Super Bowl. If the Vikings want to "win now," having a solid veteran will be critical. When Ponder couldn't play in the playoff game against the Packers, the abysmal performance of Joe Webb forced observers to question the reliability of his play at quarterback.
High-quality backup quarterbacks like Jason Campbell will cost serious money, and the best available option is Matt Moore, who finished the 2011 season ranked 16th in yards per attempt and 12th in passer rating. Moore might not be able to garner enough interest to receive a similar deal to Campbell, who is taking up $3.5 million in cap space.
Expect Moore to take a contract closer to $3 million in the first year. If that's the case, a competition in camp will allow the Vikings to cut whichever backup loses the competition. If Matt Moore beats out Joe Webb, as should be expected, the Vikings could cut Webb and save an additional $500,000 in space.
The Vikings then begin to dip into their carryover space—contract space they won't have in 2014. If they want to win now, that will occasionally be the cost. They will want to use the remaining $7.5 million to negotiate front-loaded contracts with the 2014 free agents.
The Vikings are short an offensive lineman, a defensive tackle, a safety, a receiver and a cornerback after this maneuvering, but much of that can be acquired in the draft.