It's no secret that the Minnesota Vikings are having an abysmal year. Much of that, of course, is due to a coaching staff that looks increasingly likely to leave as the season ends, but some of it is due to team quality.
But that doesn't mean there are significant albatrosses on the roster that the Vikings need to shed if they want to move forward. Some of these issues are talent-related, while others could best be characterized as "cap casualties."
Regardless, Minnesota is moving forward with a young roster and they may need to get younger in order to get better. That means getting rid of established veterans and taking some chances, which can be a painful process.
On the other hand, the team doesn't have much to lose from a shakeup, either.
Letroy Guion represents a combination of poor performance and worrisome cap hit. Heading into 2014, he stands as the ninth-largest cap hit on the team, yet remains one of its worst starters.
Since the departure of Pat Williams, the Vikings have struggled to fill the nose tackle position—often considered the fulcrum of the defense.
Consistently one of the lowest-graded defensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' player grades (subscription-only) over the course of several years, Guion has rarely had a single good game in the last two years.
Despite his size, Guion can get moved around at the point of attack and almost never requires a double-team in order to be blocked out of a play, regardless of the type of play it is.
A liability on defense, the Vikings' biggest hole might be here. He rarely creates pass-rushing pressure, gets moved out of his gap and doesn't prevent running backs from slipping into cutback lanes.
He's already being outperformed by his backup Fred Evans and the time that Kevin Williams spends at nose tackle is also a significant upgrade. It's time to go.
A free agent set to hit the market in 2014, Jared Allen likely won't be back as a Viking. That's a good thing, because it seems like Allen has hit his decline.
Not only is he on pace to have his lowest sack total in a season since 2006, he's underperformed in a lot of ways. While he showed savvy against the read-option playing against Philadelphia, he's more often than not been exploited in the run game and has accumulated his sack totals largely against weak competition.
When up against Mike Adams, one of the worst left tackles in the league (fourth worst of 76 qualifying tackles in PFF's Pass Blocking Efficiency metric), he grabbed three sacks. Aside from that, he's put up mediocre numbers against weak competition and bad numbers against any left tackles that have done well in pass protection this year.
In addition to that, a number of his sacks have been slow coverage sacks—not pass rushes he himself created.
The baggage of a $17 million cap hit adds to the disappointment; Jared Allen consumes more cap space right now than anyone else.
At top dollar, Allen should be producing like one of the top defensive ends in the NFL. Instead, he's not even producing as well as an average player. His contract demands next year look to be hefty, and the Vikings should pass.
Charlie Johnson was actually worse in 2012 than in 2013, but make no mistake: he's easily replaceable.
The weak link in an offensive line that paved the way for a 2,000-yard rushing season, Johnson doesn't display the consistent drive or ability of his peers on the line.
The Vikings value offensive line chemistry, and it's true that he can't be replaced with a player of similar skill if they expect him to perform at the same level—that simply isn't how offensive line play works.
But whatever sacrifice they make in chemistry, they'll more than make up for in talent if they invest in a relatively high-value guard in the offseason or with the draft.
Per Pro Football Focus, the other interior offensive linemen have combined to give up seven sacks, six quarterback hits and 23 hurries. Charlie Johnson has given up four sacks, twelve hits and 28 hurries on his own.
In addition, he's been on roller skates in the run game.
He can't always keep his base, sometimes gets lost looking for his assignment and doesn't have the agility to pull consistently well. More often than not, the interior running is interrupted by Charlie Johnson than anyone else, and investing in quality blocking plays should help a team so deeply committed to the run game.
That massive difference means he must go. At 29, he's already hit his peak and is on the way down, and could command up to $4 million in free agency a year. The Vikings have a number of options to replace him, and should opt for that.
Chad Greenway, unlike Jared Allen and Charlie Johnson, won't be hitting free agency due to an expiring contract in 2014. Instead, the Vikings are on the hook for $8,200,000 in cap space, per Spotrac.
Luckily, like with Letroy Guion, the Vikings no longer have any guaranteed money wrapped up in Greenway and can cut him (or force him to renegotiate) without any dead cap hit remaining.
They should consider it—Greenway's decline has been enormous and significant. Pro Football Focus calls him the worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the league. That statement alone isn't enough to convey how disappointing his play has been.
He's missed more tackles than any other linebacker in the league not named Mychal Kendricks, and that only counts the tackles he's actually gotten a hand on the ball-carrier.
He's been out of position or taken bad tackling angles in nearly every game, and is one of the reasons that Minnesota has been prone to allowing "space backs"—that thrive on agility—significant yardage.
In addition to his miscues in the running game, there's a good case to be made that he's been worse at coverage than any other player at his position. The worst part of this news is that it means he's still improved from an absolutely dismal 2012 in coverage, where he was definitively worse than his positional peers.
Routinely out of position and trailing opposing running backs and tight ends, Greenway's contributions have hurt the team more than help, and at a hefty price tag, too.
The Vikings are better off letting him go.
From a pure performance perspective, Christian Ponder probably should not be released from his cheap contract heading into next year.
While he wouldn't be named the starter, Ponder has all the qualities of a fine backup quarterback, whose duties extend far beyond simply being available and into being a critical game planning personnel and a second set of eyes for the starter.
In fact, all three quarterbacks on the roster have that quality about them, which would make that trait redundant if anything.
Instead, Ponder should go simply because it's time for the organization and the player to part ways. At this point, the atmosphere has become somewhat poisonous and a new group of players—one that hasn't had to experience his play for the past three years—might be best for him.
For the organization, it's important as well.
Familiarity won't matter, as the Vikings will implement a different offensive scheme, but the Vikings need to invest in players that the rest of the locker room can feel confident in. After these last three seasons, it might be a lost cause for Ponder to do that, should he be called upon in an emergency situation.
More than that, it might allow the Vikings to more easily clarify the role of new players entering the organization, without the specter of a quarterback battle looming over their heads. Getting as many reps as possible for a new quarterback will be necessary.
Players and teams can turn around after a fresh start, and despite the fact that Ponder might prove to be a top-tier backup quarterback in the NFL, it's time for the Vikings to move on.