With a week of free agency having come and gone, the Minnesota Vikings have made a number of surprising moves—one could argue that the Vikings have gotten worse just as easily as one could argue that they've gotten better. The moves range from savvy to confusing, and breaking down which moves are what will be a critical part to evaluating the front office.
Like most teams, the Vikings took care of their own first and then moved around the market. General manager Rick Spielman has consistently espoused a strategy of building through the draft and eschewing free agency in order to find the parts the Vikings need on their team—something Vikings fans saw once again with a relatively quiet (although punctuated) free agency period.
One of the many parts to building a team, free agency will only reveal part of the Vikings' overall plan—one fans won't see all of until the free agency period dies down. During this period, the Vikings also executed other parts to an overall plan, including the surprising trade of Percy Harvin to NFC contenders (and sometime rivals) the Seattle Seahawks.
How have the Vikings fared?
Traditionally, outside linebackers—particularly those in the weak-side linebacker position—will land a contract averaging around $5 million a year. Spotrac.com lists outside linebackers who, unless they perform at an all-star level like Chad Greenway, generally net much more than $4 million a year.
The Vikings secured Erin Henderson for a contract that totals $2 million for the year.
Henderson has been massively underrated by Vikings fans and national observers alike, but make no mistake—he's a playmaker.
The former Terrapin has made a splash as a solid run stopper, and ranks sixth among outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' run stop percentage grade—a measure of how often a linebacker can tackle to create a loss of yardage for the offense. Henderson has frequently shown a capability to shed blocks and navigate traffic in order to make the play, and you'll often find him near the ball at the end of the play.
Besides sideline-to-sideline capability and an impressive intuition for snuffing out run plays, he also avails himself well in coverage. He's not Patrick Willis when it comes to stopping the pass, but neither is he a liability. He ranks in the top half of outside linebackers in yards per attempt allowed and in the top 15 in yards allowed per snap in coverage.
He doesn't show the same level of intuition in coverage as he does in the run game, and he doesn't excel at jumping the ball, but he has great zone awareness and an understanding of landmarks and route patterns.
Henderson may have been underpaid—again—this year, but he still ends up as a quality signing for the Vikings.
Not bad for an undrafted free agent who many thought was signed based on the reputation of his brother.
Intentionally held out of late preseason practices to prepare the team for his suspension, Jerome Simpson very likely earned another chance with the team, despite how much injury and his stunted preseason may have impacted his play. Still, the Vikings gave the former Bengal speedster a raise.
For a player who managed 26 catches for 274 yards (prorated out to 35 catches for 365 yards in a full season) in his fifth year in the league, that's fairly absurd.
The "raise" isn't too much; Simpson is making $2.1 million instead of $2 million from last year, but he would have stood to make more money even with an equivalent contract, because he wouldn't have to forfeit game checks due to a suspension.
The Vikings paid Simpson about $1.8 million last year, figuring in his injury and suspension penalties to his game checks (given that he made $60,000 per active game). This season, he stands to make much more despite very little indication that he's a playmaker worth spending much more on.
The Vikings were correct to retain the services of a receiver who has playmaking potential and has learned the offense, particularly after finding themselves even thinner at receiver than before, but taking up more cap space for someone who hasn't proven anything is irksome for fans of a team that may be skating thin on cap space as it is.
Other moves were made with cap space worries in mind, so dealing with some of these issues at the bottom poorly might force the team to make moves that are largely unpalatable. Simpson alone won't be the straw that broke the camel's back, but these sort of inconsistencies add up.
The Vikings' other Jerome deserves much more fanfare than his receiver counterpart.
It's easy to be ambivalent about this move. The positives are easy to understand. Jerome Felton is a Pro Bowl fullback who helped paved the way for Adrian Peterson's 2,000-plus yard season. It's not just a result of reputation, either as Peterson averaged 7.3 yards per carry when Minnesota had two running backs in a formation.
Felton has rarely made mistakes, and is rightly responsible for a lot of Peterson's performance.
On the other hand, Rhett Ellison has been a better fullback than Felton, and will retain a much cheaper rookie contract for some time. Behind Ellison, Peterson averaged 0.2 yards more per carry than with Felton. Not only that, Ellison has simply been a better blocker as well, sustaining blocks for longer and making even fewer mistakes.
Given that Felton signed a contract averaging $2.5 million per year—the third most in the league at his position—it might not have been such a wise move to keep him on the roster.
For any other team, that would make sense. But the Vikings need Ellison's versatility and have reason to put both on the field often enough for Felton's re-signing to make sense, even at the relatively hefty price he fetched.
Given how often the Vikings like to run with an inverted wishbone package with two fullbacks or play with two lead blockers, keeping two top-tier run blockers fits the Vikings' needs schematically. It's for this reason the Vikings kept a fullback alongside Jim Kleinsasser.
Jerome Felton offers unique value to the Vikings, so keeping him on after his one-year "prove-it" deal should be marked as a success.
Make no mistake, Phil Loadholt is one of the best right tackles in the league. In the Vikings' run-oriented offense, he's especially valuable—the behemoth is one of the best run-blockers in the league at any position.
But there's a reason this was a bad signing.
At the time of the announcement, it was the highest average salary a right tackle had ever negotiated. The only right tackle who was being paid more was Doug Free, who negotiated his contract as a left tackle.
Luckily, the Colts took that dubious distinction away from Loadholt with the puzzling signing of Gosder Cherilus for even more money. Loadholt had apparently set an expensive market.
Averaging $6.25 million a year, the monstrously sized right tackle was able to force the Vikings into paying nearly a million dollars more than the previous second-biggest average contract for a right tackle, a deal belonging to Todd Herremans. And Herremans signed his contract as a guard.
Below that are David Diehl and Tyson Clabo, coming in at $5.1 million a year.
Was Loadholt really worth more than $1.3 million above the next-highest paid right tackle?
Knowing that there were a glut of right tackles available in free agency, probably not. Eric Winston, Sebastian Vollmer and Andre Smith are all testing the market in hopes that their teams do exactly what the Vikings did. All three of those right tackles are better than Loadholt, and will likely sign for cheaper deals.
Even if the Vikings weren't able to capture one of those three, serviceable pickups in Winston Justice and King Dunlap were available, too.
Had they been wiser about negotiating the contract, the Vikings probably would have been able to avoid some of the more painful moves they made later in the offseason. Even knowing that the Bears may have been interested in Loadholt, the Vikings were spooked too easily and didn't approach the negotiations wisely.
Greg Jennings has been plaguing the Vikings for years. In his 14 games against the Vikings, he's averaged just under a touchdown and 70 yards. In the last five years, it has been one touchdown and 82 yards.
Taking away a potent weapon from a rival has its own value, but Jennings would have been a good signing, even if had been from an AFC team.
Over his career, he's averaged 934 yards a season—and that includes a fluky 2012 where he only played in eight games. Except for that and his rookie year, he's averaged 1,108 yards a season.
Compared to the receivers not on rookie contracts that have consistently put up 1,000-yard seasons, Jennings' deal was actually pretty good. Of active players, those with more yards per game that are still younger than 31 are Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Roddy White. Aside from Cruz (who has not signed a new deal yet) and White, Jennings' new contract (averaging $9 million a year) is either identical or significantly less than his peers.
What makes the signing even better is that the Vikings have insulated themselves against bust potential by frontloading all of Jennings' guaranteed money.
Jennings is a somewhat dynamic threat who can line up at split end, flanker and in the slot—and has done so for the Packers for quite some time. Naturally, he's not as dynamic as the playmaker who just left Winter Park in Percy Harvin, but he is a useful receiver who should fit into nearly any offensive scheme smoothly.
In all likelihood, Jennings will switch time between flanker and the slot, playing a possession role and only occasionally lining up as the "X" receiver, who typically provides a deep threat.
His injury concerns are worrisome, but he hasn't shown the type of injury propensity to seriously indicate future concerns. He played in nearly 92 percent of the Packers' available games before last season. Andre Johnson has had the same availability. While his injury problems have been of concern to frustrated fantasy owners, it has not been nearly the same headache to the Texans. So too, with Jennings.
Antoine Winfield was unquestionably the best cornerback the Vikings had. In fact, he so outplayed his expected role that he ended up escalating his contract (and cap hit) for the 2013 season.
As Tom Pelissero of ESPN1500 explains, Winfield's cap hit would have exceeded the amount of available cap space the Vikings ended up with at this point in the free agency period. The business side of sports is always a little cold, and that alone doesn't make Winfield's loss a bad move.
The fact that the Vikings didn't try to restructure the deal before cutting him does make it a bad move, however. They did not contact Winfield nor his agent, nor did they hint that Winfield would end up looking for a new job.
The theory that Winfield would test the market and then come back to the Vikings could be sound in the abstract, but ignores the real risk that exposing an asset to other teams brings. In fact, Winfield has been has had multiple visits with other teams.
Aside from the risk of another team providing a better contract to the best corner the Vikings had on their roster for quite some time, the potential for personal effrontery to sour the pot makes cutting Winfield a big gamble.
Winfield allowed the fewest yards per snap in coverage for the Vikings along with the fewest touchdowns (despite being on the field for more than 400 snaps more than the corner with the second-most snaps), the lowest passer rating by other quarterbacks and opposing QBs' lowest yards per attempt. Throw in the over 100 tackles and his phenomenal support in the run game, and it's clear that Winfield has been a huge asset to the Vikings.
Keeping Winfield should have been a higher priority for a front office that benefited from a poster year in the veteran's career.
The Vikings are probably better off with Percy Harvin than Greg Jennings. Minnesota might even be in a better spot with Harvin than with Jennings and a first-round pick.
But that wasn't the choice general manager Rick Spielman was faced with.
With persistent demands for a trade, in part fueled by dissatisfaction with Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings' front office couldn't do much other than find value for their troubled receiver.
At a time when trade value shouldn't have possibly been any lower, the Vikings were able to net a first-round pick, a seventh-round pick and a 2014 third-round pick, overall worth the same as the 22nd pick overall in a typical draft (using a draft value chart and a typical discount for future picks).
The question isn't whether or not Jennings is better to have on the team than Harvin. The real value that needs to be compared to a five-year contract with Jennings is whether or not the cost of that contract, Jennings' on-field capability and a generic 22nd draft pick are worth more than one year of production from Harvin and a third-round compensatory pick in 2015 (worth the 160th pick in a generic draft after discounting for future years).
Most fans would agree that five years of Jennings and a generic 22nd overall draft pick are worth more than one year of Harvin and a generic 160th overall draft pick. In that sense, the front office hit a home run.
Add to the fact that Harvin may have been willing to hold out, and the Vikings came away with a bargain.
That doesn't matter, as poor starting quarterbacks transition well to being good quality backups. That, and Cassel found himself hung out to dry more often than not, with a new offensive coordinator every year of his career—going from Josh McDaniels, to Todd Haley, then Charlie Weis (who constructed an offense he went to the Pro Bowl with) may have been a bit unsettling, but transitioning from there to Bill Muir and Brian Daboll is torture.
Even with all of that—three or four different offensive systems and a different set of called plays every year—Cassel has put up decent career numbers.
Of active quarterbacks, he ranks 25th in yards per pass attempt and 24th in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (which takes into account sacks and gives bonuses for touchdowns and penalties for interceptions). These both exceed Ponder's career or 2012 numbers in those metrics. The same is true of passer rating, where he ranks 21st.
That doesn't mean Cassel is a better quarterback than Ponder—Ponder has room to grow—but it does mean the gulf isn't too wide.
The gripe many seem to be having with the deal is that Cassel is being paid around $4 million a year. But the only starter on the Vikings roster who is being paid less for positional value and is not on a rookie contract is Erin Henderson. Players like Charlie Johnson, Letroy Guion and Jerome Felton cannot command higher contracts either because of their play or position. Cassel's $4 million are right in line with the numbers that high-end backup quarterbacks have been getting.
While we don't know the numbers for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tennessee or Matt Hasselbeck and the Colts, expect them to earn about the same. Matt Moore is earning four million dollars in Miami and Kyle Orton is earning $3.5 million. In 2012, Jason Campbell earned $3.5 million as well.
The Vikings and their fans should know the value of a backup. Aside from watching Chicago's fall from grace in 2011, they saw their own team go to pieces when backup quarterback Joe Webb wasn't up to the task was asked to start before a playoff game against a division rival.
Jamarca Sanford has done extremely well for himself as a seventh-round pick. Not only has he stayed with the team and avoided the practice squad, he worked his way up to a starting spot in 2011.
And in 2012, he was actually good at it.
With comparable safeties earning $3.5 million a year, like Dwight Lowery or Thomas DeCoud, the Vikings were able to wrap up Sanford for only $2 million a year.
While this could signal that the Vikings are moving on and are merely asking for an expensive backup, the value he has makes this contract well worth it, despite the fact that a rookie may be brought in to compete with him.
Sanford ended the season as Pro Football Focus' 24th ranked safety, and his propensity to strip the ball played no small part in his solid play. Sanford not only improved his assignment execution, he had better awareness of receivers and could locate the ball more often than not when in the air.
Despite playing over 800 snaps of football, Sanford only allowed 199 passing yards his way. Most other players near that mark have played far fewer snaps, including Ahmad Black (431 snaps), Tom Zbikowski (693 snaps), DeJon Gomes (405 snaps) and Charles Woodson (486 snaps).
And he's been a crushing run stopper, too.
Of all safeties, Sanford ranked third overall in run stop percentage and was in the top half of safeties in tackling efficiency. He has always had the ability to diagnose plays and work downhill, but this in concert with improvements in pass coverage has made him a very good starter for the Vikings.
And if $2 million a year signals a coming replacement, he could end up being the best backup safety in the league.