Don't look now, but the ferocious winds of change are blowing around the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off a dismal 5-10-1 record, the Vikings are a team looking to find its true identity.
By announcing that Leslie Frazier would not be returning as the head coach next season, ownership made it clear that it wanted to go in a new direction. Plagued by brutal quarterback play and the NFL's 31st-ranked defense, the Vikings need a to take a different path in order to restore confidence within the organization and the fanbase.
For Minnesota, that change starts by tapping into free agency this offseason and signing key players who can help this roster grow into a legitimate contender.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Vikings will have an estimated $29.5 million in cap space heading into the 2014 season. That number bodes well for a team that has to get stronger on the defensive side of the ball.
Combining advanced statistics, film study and the particular needs of the Vikings heading into the offseason, I compiled this list of five NFL free agents whom the Minnesota front office must target in order to help turn around the fortunes of this football team.
*All stats courtesy of NFL.com unless noted otherwise.
*All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless noted otherwise.
Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Thanks to Jared Allen's expiring contract, the Vikings are in desperate need of adding a dominate pass-rusher into the mix. Taking a look at some of the upcoming free agents at the defensive end position, one name that stands out is Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks.
Playing just 617 snaps this season, Bennett was ultra-productive. Grading out as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best 4-3 defensive end, Bennett finished the regular season with nine sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 39 QB hurries.
While his production warrants a huge contract in the offseason, Bennett told Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com that he came back to Seattle to "win championships and play in big games."
With the Vikings still looking for their franchise quarterback and trying to resolve issues on the defensive side of the football, Minnesota doesn't like the kind of situation that Bennett would be interested in.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Despite being one of the most exciting players in NFL history, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is one guy you won't be seeing in Minnesota next season.
Playing in just 17 games over the last two seasons, Vick's biggest problem is he can't stay healthy. Entering a contract year, the veteran QB told CSNPhilly.com columnist Reuben Frank that he still thinks he can play at a high level.
With so much turmoil surrounding the Vikings quarterback position, bringing a polarizing player like Vick in would just further muddy the waters. The goal here is to secure a franchise signal-caller this offseason, not sign a 33-year-old QB who's battled injuries his whole career.
Assuming the Indianapolis Colts let him hit the open market, cornerback Vontae Davis is one player the Vikings have to target.
The 25-year-old Davis is coming off one of his strongest seasons as a pro. Finishing as PFF's third-ranked cornerback in the NFL, Davis showed potential suitors just how good of a player he can be.
The younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae has matured tremendously since leaving the Miami Dolphins after the 2011 season. As Brian Biggane of The Palm Beach Post highlighted in an article he wrote about Davis' tenure in Miami, the talented cornerback has always had the tools needed succeed. The only issue came down whether or not he could keep his head on straight.
Well, things have sure worked out for the Colts. Playing exceptionally well since arriving here in 2012, Davis should be in for a nice payday this offseason. The only question now becomes, will that check come from Indianapolis or some other organization?
With the Chris Cook and his lethargic play headed for free agency, it would be worth shelling out big bucks to watch Davis play in the foreseeable future alongside current Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
One name the Vikings need to consider this offseason is Corey Wootton.
If he doesn't end up re-signing with the Chicago Bears, Wootton is exactly the type of player this Vikings defense needs. Watching the unit on film you notice that one of the biggest issues a lack of creativity.
In a league that's predicated on dynamic offensive schemes, having versatile defenders players who can pose different looks to these offenses is crucial. With Wootton, the Vikings would be getting a player who can play both defensive tackle and defensive end.
At just 26 years old, Wootton finished the 2013 season with a positive 4.2 grade, according to Pro Football Focus' metrics.
His versatility and age are both compelling reasons to try and lure this defensive playmaker over to the purple and gold machine.
If the Vikings don't want to dish out a huge contract to a defensive back, then former Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham should be the guy they pursue.
Serving as an integral part of Baltimore's secondary, Graham finished the 2013 season with a positive PFF grade of 4.0. As the Ravens' No. 3 corner, Graham came down with four interceptions and deflected 12 passes.
Because of his stellar performance and the Ravens being plagued with potential salary-cap issues this offseason, there's a realistic chance Graham could end up playing for another team in 2014.
Let's hope that team is the Vikings. A player who has experience in the NFC North—he spent five seasons with the Chicago Bears—Graham has shown he is a versatile defensive back who can adapt to multiple defensive schemes.
Retaining Graham's services would be huge for a Vikings club that finished with the 31st-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Despite telling of The Baltimore Sun that he would like to return to the Ravens next year, Graham said:
Obviously, being a free agent means that it’s a little different situation. I don’t know what’s going to happen, whether I’m going to be here or going to be somewhere else. I’m just going to leave that up to my agent. I’m just going to get back to work, get back to working out and try to get better.
Adding a talented player who is always looking to improve would help bring leadership to Minnesota's depleted secondary. And it would be one heck of an offseason coup.
The search for a free agent pass-rusher who can alter the course of a football game should begin and end in Minnesota.
Over his last two seasons with the Vikings, 26-year-old defensive end Everson Griffen has been a productive asset for this team. According to PFF's advanced statistics, Griffen finished the season with a positive 4.7 grade. That puts him in the same category as New England Patriots pass-rusher Chandler Jones and Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson.
What the Vikings have to love about Griffen is that he possesses an obscene amount of athletic ability and has continued to progress as a player.
On film, one thing you notice right away is Griffen's fantastic burst and tremendous closing speed, and those are just a few of the traits that make him such a versatile rusher off the edge.
With Griffen's blend of on-field production and impressive skills, it becomes abundantly clear that the Vikings need to sign him to a long-term deal this offseason.
Expressing interest in returning to Minnesota, Griffen told Greg A. Bedard of MMQB.com:
Once a Viking, always a Viking. I would love to be a Minnesota Viking throughout my whole career. It’s up to them. You have to let the chips fall where they may.
But after losing his starting job to then-rookie quarterback Russell Wilson during training camp, Flynn's star began to fade. Unsuccessful stops in Oakland and Buffalo finally led Flynn back to Green Bay earlier this season.
Guiding a struggling team to a 2-2-1 record in Aaron Rodgers' absence, Flynn was an integral part of the Packers winning the NFC North this season.
So why would the Vikings be interested in this journeymen QB? Well for starters, Flynn is a gamer. Facing adversity over the last two seasons, Flynn was able to keep his composure and turn his career around.
With Flynn's big contract days now a thing of past, the Vikings would be able to sign him to a low-risk deal. Plus, if the front office decides to go after a franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, Flynn would fit beautifully into the role of capable backup.
Don't let the flashes of "greatness" that Matt Cassel displayed this season fool you: With a new head coach coming to Minnesota, now is the time to clean house and get rid of all of the quarterbacks on this Vikings roster.