The bad news for the Minnesota Vikings is that they have 10 unrestricted free agents (UFA) and must decide which players they want to offer contracts to. Depending on how you look at it, the good news is that none of them are worthy of receiving the franchise tag. That means if the Vikings are to retain their services, it won't cost the team the average of the top-five-paid players at those positions to keep them.
Of course, it also means they could find themselves in a bidding war with other teams.
The last time the Vikings used the franchise tag to retain the services of a player was in 2011. That year they applied it to weak-side linebacker Chad Greenway. The Vikings eventually signed him to a five-year, $40.6 million contract that will pay him $6.9 million in 2013, with a total cap hit of $8.7 million.
That ranks him 10th among linebackers in the NFL.
Of the 10 UFA's, six of them made at least seven starts last year. Four are from the defense, led by starting linebackers Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley and safety Jamarca Sanford, who started 13 games. Backup linebacker Marvin Mitchell completes the list.
Of the six free agents from the offense, right tackle Phil Loadholt and Pro-Bowl fullback Jerome Felton are the Vikings' top priorities. The other four include wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Devin Aromashodu, and offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz and Joe Berger.
Let's take a deeper look at the situation, starting with the offense.
On the surface, it would appear that Felton is the most deserving player to receive the franchise tag. For the fifth-year veteran, 2012 was only the second time he had played in all 16 games of the regular season. When the Vikings signed him to a one-year, $750,000 contract, it was his chance to prove he was a bona fide NFL fullback. It didn't hurt his chances that he had the opportunity to block for Adrian Peterson after bouncing from Detroit to Carolina to Indianapolis the previous two seasons.
If the Vikings were to use the franchise tag on Felton, it would cost them in the neighborhood of $2.4 million, based on the average of the five highest paid fullbacks heading into 2013. I don't expect the Vikings to use the tag on Felton, as I feel that they can re-sign him for less than that.
According to NFL.com, the franchise tag number for an offensive lineman is $9.66 million. This is an awful lot to pay for Loadholt, who led the team with 11 penalties—the fifth most in the league last year.
On the other hand, Loadholt has started at right tackle in every game he's played, missing only one game in his rookie season of 2009. Mike Woschall, from Vikings.com reported last week that general manager Rick Spielman wants to re-sign Loadholt. Spielman was quoted:
Phil Loadholt is a good football player for us. Our offensive line had a lot of wholesale changes up front, getting Matt Kalil, moving Charlie (Johnson) inside to left guard, the emergence of (John) Sullivan, who I think is a Pro Bowl center, the development of Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt. Our objective is to hopefully keep all those guys together for the next three, four, five years.
Last season, he cost the Vikings $918,750 against their cap number. In order to retain his services, it will cost the team much more than that to re-sign him—somewhere between $3 and $5 million for this coming season.
Of the remaining free agents on offense, none of them are in a position to command much of a raise over last season. Berger, who was listed as the backup center to John Sullivan, will most likely stick around, unless he demands too much of an increase. The same applies for Schwartz; however, he may have a little more leverage, having started all 16 games for the Panthers in 2010.
It will be interesting to see if the Vikings give Simpson another one-year contract to prove he can be a starting wide receiver in the NFL. His best season came in 2011 with the Bengals. He finished third for Cincinnati with 50 receptions and four touchdowns. Last season, a three-game suspension and injuries limited his effectiveness for the Vikings.
Simpson failed to reach the end zone, catching only 26 passes. His average of 10.5 yards per catch was the lowest over his last three seasons.
That leaves Aromashodu, who has to be out of chances. With only 11 catches in 15 games, he has to be on his way to the Canadian Football League—especially on a team in desperate need of receivers.
Let's take a look at the defense.
It would be good for the defense, which was improved in 2012, to maintain some level of consistency on the field heading into 2013. Henderson, in his second year as the starting strong-side linebacker, and Brinkley, in his first at middle linebacker, were not spectacular last season. They were both still learning how to be starters, and it was the first season under defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
While neither player warrants being paid like a top linebacker in the league, they will be both get raises in 2013. The question is if it will be with the Vikings. With a weak free-agent market at linebacker, it would make sense to re-sign both as the team looks to develop a future starter through the draft.
If it comes down to being able to keep one of these two, Henderson, with more experience, has the inside track. Of course, that experience will cost the Vikings more against the salary cap.
Brinkley (99) and Henderson (80) finished fourth and fifth respectively in tackles for the Vikings. Henderson added three sacks, while Brinkley was second on the team with three forced fumbles—but neither is ready to be paid close to the $8.7 million that Greenway will make in 2013.
Mitchell has been a solid special teams player in his career, with only three starts on defense over six seasons. He can expect a slight increase to maintain the same role in 2013. If he demands anything more than $900,000, the Vikings might give his backup role to Audie Cole, their seventh-round pick from 2012. Cole was active for five games last season but didn't see any action on defense.
Who should the Vikings use their franchise tag on?
That leaves safety Sanford to consider. Sanford opened the season backing up Mistral Raymond and Harrison Smith after starting 15 games in 2011. Those starts came as part of the worst defensive secondary in 2011, which allowed a league-high 34 touchdown passes. An injury to Raymond allowed Sanford to make 13 starts last year.
Sanford played better in an improved backfield, leading the team with five forced fumbles. The problem for him is that the depth chart on Vikings.com still lists him as a backup, although he started a total of 28 games the last two seasons.
It's been two seasons since the Vikings last used the franchise tag. It will be at least one more until they use it again. Next season, they will have to decide what to do at defensive end. Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen will all be unrestricted free agents, along with punter Chris Kluwe and cornerback Chris Cook.