Minnesota Vikings: The Top Offseason Priorities
Then, the team released veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield on the first day of free agency.
The release of Winfield was shocking to some, but the reasons for letting the feisty vet walk became apparent when Minnesota went out and signed receiver Greg Jennings away from the Green Bay Packers. Clearly, the Vikings had to get rid of Winfield and his $7 million cap hit in order to free up cash for their pursuit of Jennings.
There were some other less consequential signings and departures, but these were the moves that grabbed headlines in Minnesota and across the country.
Even with these moves, Minnesota's roster still has some holes. The Vikings are woefully thin at linebacker and wide receiver (even with the addition of Jennings and the re-signing of Jerome Simpson). The team could also use some help at defensive tackle, cornerback and guard.
The following slideshow examines the Vikings' top remaining offseason priorities. Each slide will show What They Did (what moves were made), What They Have (players currently on the roster), What They Need (deficiencies still remaining at the position) and What They'll Do (a prediction of future moves).
The slides are organized from least pressing to most pressing needs. Click on for a guide to the Minnesota Vikings' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities.
What They Did: The Vikings haven't really done anything in the offseason with the tight end position.
What They Have: Minnesota seems pretty set at this position. The main tight end, Kyle Rudolph, won Pro Bowl MVP honors in the offseason. Though John Carlson didn't show much in his first year with the team after signing as a free agent in 2012, the team is bringing him back for a second chance. According to Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Vikings restructured Carlson's contract to clear some cap space. Second-year man Rhett Ellison will be the third tight end. LaMark Brown and Chase Ford will fight for spots on the practice squad.
What They Need: The signing of Jennings should help free up Rudolph, who was productive even though he spent half the season as the team's only legitimate receiving threat. The Notre Dame alum finished the year with 53 receptions for 493 yards and nine touchdowns. If Carlson can show any signs of life and Ellison continues to contribute both on offense and special teams, the Vikings should be pretty much set at this position.
What They'll Do: Most likely, the team won't make a lot of moves here.
What They Did: This is another place where the Vikings didn't make any significant offseason moves.
What They Have: The Vikings have arguably the best kicker in the NFL in second-year man Blair Walsh. The rookie from Georgia set an NFL record by going 10-for-10 on kicks over 50 yards. He consistently boomed kickoffs so deep that they couldn't be returned, and finished the season having made 92.1 percent of his field-goal attempts. Punter Chris Kluwe was less consistent than in previous years, but remains one of the top 10 punters in the NFL. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler is one of the league's finest, as well.
What They Need: Losing Harvin as a kick returner is a blow to the special teams unit. He provided the Vikings with a home-run threat every time he touched the ball. Marcus Sherels was the primary punt returner, and could see duty on the kickoff team in 2013.
What They'll Do: According to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Vikings had the best special teams units in the NFL last year. As Gosselin states in his analysis:
"Minnesota booted the most field goals, committed the fewest turnovers and allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season on special teams. The Vikings finished in the top five in seven other categories and the top 10 in four more."
Don't look for the team to make any significant changes here, unless the Vikings draft a top-notch kick returner.
What They Did: Once again, the Vikings didn't do anything of substance with this position in the offseason.
What They Have: Both starting positions are set. Tailback Adrian Peterson is coming off of an MVP season, and his fullback, Jerome Felton, was selected to the Pro Bowl following the 2012 campaign. Peterson was out of this world in 2012, rushing for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns—all after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Toby Gerhart backs up Peterson, and Matt Asiata rounds out the roster.
What They Need: The team is pretty well set, to say the least, at running back. If Peterson were to be injured again, Gerhart is a viable backup option. Asiata shows potential, and tight end Rhett Ellison could fill in for Felton if the need came up. The loss of Harvin hurts a little here, even though he was primarily a wide receiver. He carried the ball out of the backfield and on reverses occasionally, and was a valuable decoy in other situations.
What They'll Do: Don't expect Minnesota to make any big moves here. Unless the team can find a cheap third-down back with kick returning skills, there probably won't be any significant roster changes.
What They Have: With the addition of Cassel, the Vikings should be set at quarterback. Ponder was inconsistent in 2012, starting and finishing the year with efficient performances, but struggling in the middle of the season when the team went into a skid.
Ponder finished the year with 2,935 yards passing, along with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. These aren't great numbers, but he also didn't have much to work with after Harvin went down in midseason with an ankle injury. It will be interesting to see how he performs with Jennings and presumably a top draft pick in the receiving corps.
Cassel was signed to be Ponder's backup after Joe Webb's horrific performance in a playoff loss to the Packers. McLeod Bethel-Thompson was the third QB last year, but hasn't seen any game action in the regular season.
What They Need: After discovering that Webb wasn't really a viable backup option, Minnesota made a move to ink Cassel. Should Ponder be injured (or fail to perform), the team is stronger at the position than in 2012.
What They'll Do: The only real intrigue here, at least in the offseason, is whether Bethel-Thompson or Webb grabs the No. 3 job. There's a chance that the loser of that competition would be cut. There's an outside chance that the team could draft a project QB in the late rounds.
What They Have: The Vikings started the same five players up and down the offensive line in all 16 games last season. That consistency helped pave the way for Peterson's historic year. The team features standouts in tackles Loadholt and Matt Kalil, and has perhaps the best center in the NFL in John Sullivan.
Guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco were serviceable, but shaky at times, particularly in pass protection. Berger is the utility man of this group, as he can play any position along the line. Olsen was primarily a backup in Indianapolis, and will likely reprise that role in Minnesota. Demarcus Love spent last year on the IR, but has the potential to be a solid backup.
What They Need: This isn't a position of obvious need for the Vikings, but it will be interesting to see what they do. While it's hard to be critical of a line that led Peterson to over 2,000 rushing yards, the play of the guards was suspect at times. An upgrade in the middle wouldn't be a bad thing.
What They'll Do: Unless one of the very top guard prospects, like Alabama's Chance Warmack or North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper, falls to Minnesota in the first round, don't expect the Vikings to make any splashy moves. They'll likely give Berger and Olsen a chance to win starting roles, with the displaced guard moved to backup duty. It's also a good bet that the team will take a guard in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft in an effort to solidify the position.
What They Did: The Vikings haven't made any drastic moves on the defensive line during the offseason.
Following the 2013 season, some tough financial decisions are looming, but the pass rush is in good shape for the upcoming campaign. Kevin Williams continues to man one tackle position, and though his productivity is declining as he ages, he's still a good defender in the middle. The only issue with Williams is his high cap number of over $7 million (contract info from spotrac.com).
Letroy Guion and Fred Evans split time at the other tackle position, with Guion the primary starter. Neither is a horrible option, but neither will make anyone forget Pat Williams either. Aside from Griffen, Christian Ballard and George Johnson are the primary backups.
What They Need: The Vikings definitely need to address the defensive tackle position in the draft. The team finished 11th against the run last year, which isn't bad, but is a far cry from the dominant run defense Minnesota fans came to expect in the early part of the century. Minnesota could actually use two tackles—one to eventually replace Williams and the other to take over the position held by Guion.
What They'll Do: Expect the Vikings to use one of their early picks on a defensive tackle. If they decide to draft a tackle in the first round, Sheldon Richardson of Missouri, Jesse Williams of Alabama, Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State and North Carolina's Sylvester Williams are all possibilities. The draft is very deep at tackle this year, so Minnesota may wait until the second round to address this need.
What They Did: The Vikings released veteran Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield. The move was made to clear cap space for the team to make a run at Greg Jennings. No other moves of note were made in the offseason.
There's a lot of talent in this bunch, but injuries have plagued Cook throughout his young career, and Robinson is still developing. Jefferson has been serviceable but not spectacular in his time with the team.
Beyond those three, the cupboard is frighteningly bare. Marcus Sherels is on the team as a return man, and suffers greatly in coverage situations. Brandon Burton was active for only four games last season.
The situation at safety is much better. Rookie Harrison Smith lived up to expectations, and Jamarca Sanford filled in admirably when starter Mistral Raymond went down with an injury. Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo provide depth and special teams reps.
What They Need: Regardless of what happens with Winfield, the Vikings need depth at corner, and could use an early pick on the position if the right player is available. If any of the current starters gets hurt, the backups are simply not good enough to play significant minutes in the NFL.
What They'll Do: According to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com, the team would welcome a return by Winfield, albeit in a limited role. The prospects of a reunion might be slim, however. Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press writes that Winfield is set to visit the Washington Redskins and has received inquiries from a number of other teams as well.
Assuming that Winfield signs somewhere else, the team will look to fortify the cornerback position through the draft. In an ideal situation, Winfield returns and the team can wait until the third or fourth round to explore the options at corner. If he leaves, the Vikings might take a hard look at players like Jonthan Banks of Mississippi State, Florida State's Xavier Rhodes or Desmond Trufant of Washington.
What They Did: Minnesota traded Percy Harvin to Seattle for three draft picks (Seattle's first and seventh picks in this year's draft, and a third-round pick next year). The Vikings also re-signed Jerome Simpson and lured Greg Jennings away from Green Bay in free agency. Minnesota released Michael Jenkins and let Devin Aromashodu walk during free agency.
What They Have: Even with Jennings on board, the Vikings are thin at receiver. After Jennings, only Jarius Wright and Simpson are sure to make the roster.
Wright showed flashes of promise after stepping in for Harvin last year. Simpson dealt with a suspension at the beginning of the year, and fought injuries the rest of the season. His production will have to improve dramatically if he expects to remain on the squad after this year.
Greg Childs is trying to recover from two torn patella tendons and Stephen Burton was a non-factor last season.
What They Need: The Vikings definitely need to add depth and quality at this spot. Thankfully for them, there are a bevy of talented receivers available in this year's draft. Ideally, Minnesota would grab a player with outstanding speed, in order to take some pressure off of Peterson and the running game, and give Christian Ponder a legitimate deep threat. Having another weapon in the receiving corps will only enhance Jennings' value.
What They'll Do: There are a ton of talented receivers in this year's draft. It would be surprising if the Vikings didn't nab one with one of their first three picks. Likely candidates include Cal's Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter of Tennessee (though it's highly unlikely that Patterson will still be available when the Vikings pick), West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Robert Woods of USC.
What They Have: Aside from Pro Bowler Chad Greenway and Henderson, there isn't much there. Marvin Mitchell and Larry Dean contributed mostly on special teams in 2012, and neither seems a viable option to take over full-time duties in the middle. Audie Cole showed some promise in the preseason, but didn't play a down at linebacker during the regular year.
What They Need: The most glaring need is for a starting middle linebacker. As it stands, there really isn't anyone on the current roster that fills the bill. Depth on the outside is a concern as well.
What They'll Do: For a while, it seemed like the Vikings had interest in Brian Urlacher, who is leaving the Chicago Bears. Those rumors have cooled off in recent days. Minnesota will almost certainly use one of its early picks to fill the middle linebacker slot, and will probably spend another pick or two on linebackers later in the draft.
The most likely prospects include Arthur Brown of Kansas State, Notre Dame's Manti T'eo, LSU's Kevin Minter and Alec Ogletree of Georgia. If a hot prospect like Ogletree or Brown falls to the Vikings, it's possible that they'd draft an outside linebacker and move Henderson into the middle.
Needless to say, the Vikings have a lot to think about as free agency rolls on and the April draft approaches. The team has glaring needs at wide receiver and linebacker, and holes to fill at cornerback and defensive tackle. Minnesota could use more depth along the offensive line and a good kickoff returner would help soften the blow of Percy Harvin's departure.
Have your own ideas about what the Vikings need? Is there a hot draft prospect that you want to talk about? Still some free agents floating around that Minnesota should be looking at? Speak your mind in the comments section below.
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