7 Big Moves the Minnesota Vikings Could Make in 2014 Free Agency
It didn't take long for the Minnesota Vikings to start the overhaul of the team after the end of their 5-10-1 season. In less than 24 hours, they relieved Leslie Frazier of his head coaching job. Now, before the roster overhaul begins, the Vikings need to find his replacement so they can address some key positions and start the improving process.
With 19 players from their 2013 roster set to become free agents this year, the Vikings have plenty of holes to be filled. On defense, they need to fill some holes on the line, linebacker and cornerback. On offense, they can use an upgrade at guard, a wide receiver and a franchise quarterback.
According to Spotrac, without the 19 free agents, the Vikings have $97.6 million in salaries committed in 2014. That leaves them somewhere in the neighborhood of $29 million in cap space to sign rookies and free agents, giving them the opportunity to make a big splash in free agency.
Don't get too excited waiting for the next big-name free agent to don purple—the biggest free-agent signings for the Vikings recently are cornerback Antoine Winfield in 2004 and wide receiver Greg Jennings last year. So just because the Vikings have the ability to sign free agents doesn't necessarily mean they will sign some big names.
Here's a look at some potential players the Vikings could attempt to sign in 2014.
Defensive End Michael Bennett
The Minnesota Vikings will need to decide what to do with defensive end Jared Allen. Since joining the team in 2008, he has led the Vikings in sacks every year. Including his monster season of 2011, when he set the franchise record with 22.0 sacks, he has averaged 14.2 sacks per season.
An extremely durable player, Allen never missed a start in six seasons with the Vikings and only missed a total of nine over 10 seasons. The problem is his $17 million cap hit in 2013 was the fifth highest in the NFL—he was the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league.
In a report from Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press last Monday, Allen didn't provide any indication what he might do.
There's a lot of uncertainty right now. There's a lot of uncertainty all over the league. I'd be doing myself and the organization an injustice to try to make a quick decision. That never benefits anybody. I'll have the right conversation with the right people at the right time.
If Allen was going to be a Viking next season, I feel something would have been done a long time ago, before he had the chance to test free agency.
So the Vikings will look to find his replacement. There are some really good free-agent defensive ends the Vikings could pursue. On the top of most lists is Greg Hardy from Carolina. The Panthers' sixth-round draft pick in 2010 had 15 sacks to lead the team.
A great replacement for Allen, don't expect Carolina to allow Hardy to become a free agent. It will most likely use the franchise tag to retain his services.
A more likely candidate for the Vikings to sign would be Michael Bennett.
Bennett had 8.5 sacks this season for the Seahawks making three starts. Before that, he played four seasons in Tampa Bay, starting a combined 26 games in 2011 and 2012. At 6'4" and 270 pounds, Bennett's size is right between that of Allen (6'6", 265 lbs) and the Vikings' other starting defensive end, Brian Robison (6'2", 258 lbs).
He's not at the same caliber as Allen, but he just might be the best free-agent defensive end available to the Vikings.
Offensive Guard Geoff Schwartz
Even though the Minnesota Vikings returned the same five starters on the offensive line in 2013, the results were not as good as the previous season. Certainly running back Adrian Peterson and the revolving door at quarterback played a part.
The Vikings offense dropped from second in the NFL to eighth in rushing yards. Their offensive line gave up 44 sacks this past season, an increase from 32 in 2012.
With left guard Charlie Johnson becoming a free agent, the Vikings need to find someone who can line up alongside second-year left tackle Matt Kalil.
One such player would be Geoff Schwartz.
In his first stint with the Vikings in 2012, Schwartz was coming off a hip injury that cost him the entire 2011 season. Second-year player Brandon Fusco beat him out as the starter.
This past season in Kansas City, he started seven games for the Chiefs. According to B/R featured columnist Eric Mack, Schwartz is the second-best free-agent guard available. With a potential new coaching staff in place, perhaps the Vikings can re-sign the five-year veteran who started all 16 games for Carolina in 2010.
Wide Receiver Eric Decker
This is not the first time I have advocated the signing of former Golden Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker.
No doubt having quarterback Peyton Manning throwing passes in his direction has buoyed is statistics.
Decker finished second on the Broncos—the top passing team in the NFL, with 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. In comparison, the Vikings' top three receivers totaled 11 touchdowns.
It's a long shot that the Vikings will re-sign wide receiver Jerome Simpson, especially after his DWI arrest in November. After already losing his starting role to rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, it would seem the Vikings are set at wide receiver, even without Simpson.
The signing of Decker would bring an accomplished receiver to line up along with Greg Jennings and Patterson in a three-receiver set that would give the Vikings a very formidable passing offense.
Decker, a third-round draft pick of the Broncos in 2010, has 24 touchdowns the past two seasons with Manning at quarterback. In 2011, he finished with eight touchdowns with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton at quarterback.
The Vikings would have to offer Decker money fit for a No. 1 receiver in order to have him return home. No doubt the Vikings have big plans for Patterson to be their long-term top receiver—the odds of Decker signing with the Vikings are very long.
Still, it would be a big hit for the fans, especially with a top rookie quarterback in place to give the fans something to look forward to. Besides, with the team playing the two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium, Decker already knows the place.
Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph
Along with defensive end Jared Allen, the Minnesota Vikings are losing one of the top defensive linemen in franchise history in Kevin Williams. According to Pro Football Reference, Williams is the team's fourth-leading sack producer and one of only 10 players with two fumble recoveries for a touchdown.
Minnesota used its first pick in the 2013 NFL draft to select Sharrif Floyd to take over for Williams. Now the Vikings need to find someone who can contribute playing next to Floyd.
The past two years, Letroy Guion has started 28 games at nose tackle. He has averaged 13 tackles over the past two years as a starter. Combined with Fred Evans his backup, who is a free agent this season, the duo has a total of five sacks since 2012. The run defense has also suffered, dropping from second in yards allowed in 2009 to 16th last season.
A player the Vikings should look at is New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph. A second-round draft pick of the Giants in 2010, Joseph has averaged three sacks and 33 tackles per season since becoming a starter in 2011. His salary this past season was just over $1 million, with $6.8 million being freed up from Williams' and Evans' contracts, the Vikings have some room to pay Joseph.
At 6'4" and 328 pounds, Joseph is about 35 pounds heavier than Guion. The signing would help the Vikings by moving Guion to a backup role.
Linebacker Jason Worilds
After missing a game in Week 13 this season for personal reasons due to a DWI arrest, linebacker Erin Henderson lost his starting middle linebacker position to Audie Cole. His second arrest on January 1 almost assures that he will not be back with the Vikings in 2014.
As Tom Pelissero from 1500ESPN tweeted last week, Henderson is as good as gone.
The Vikings may want to reassess their entire defense, and there is no guarantee that Cole will remain the starter. Regardless, they can use an upgrade anywhere in the linebacker position.
Worilds was Pittsburgh's second-round draft pick in 2010. This past season, he made 11 starts and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Last season, Henderson finished fourth on the Vikings with four sacks as they appeared to blitz from the linebacker position more.
At only 25 years old, Worilds is moving into the prime of his career. He had his best season in 2013 for the Steelers. At 6'2" and 240 pounds, he's the same size as linebacker Chad Greenway.
There are a couple of questions that need to be answered—what defense will the Vikings end up playing next season, and can Worilds make the switch to a 4-3 defense if they stay that way?
Cornerback Chris Harris
The Minnesota Vikings may have found a shutdown cornerback in rookie Xavier Rhodes. In 13 games this season, he led the Vikings with 10 passes defended. Unfortunately, like fellow cornerback Chris Cook, he failed to stay on the field for the entire season.
Speaking of Cook, 2013 will most likely be his last season with the Vikings. The 2010 second-round draft pick, Cook has averaged only eight games per season and failed to intercept a pass in four seasons.
According to NFL Trade Rumors, there are plenty of free-agent cornerbacks available, including Charles Tillman, Sam Shields, Brent Grimes and Vontae Davis. A player the Vikings should target is Denver cornerback Chris Harris.
An undrafted free agent in 2011, Harris has started 27 games the past two seasons for the Broncos. According to Pro Football Reference, he has a total of 24 passes defended over those two seasons.
In 2013, he was one of three players for Denver with three interceptions. He has seven interceptions in three seasons.
Two years younger than Cook, Harris would be an easy upgrade over at cornerback. With Rhodes and third-year player Josh Robinson coming back healthy next season, the Vikings would have a young trio to build the secondary around.
Defensive End Jared Allen
Defensive end Jared Allen is only 28.5 sacks behind John Randle as the Minnesota Vikings all-time sack leader. It would be great to see him finish out his career with the Vikings and become the franchise leader in sacks, something that could happen by late 2016—if he can maintain close to his current output.
As pointed out in the first slide, Allen has been extremely durable for the Vikings having not missed a game since they traded for him 2008.
He's a known commodity that has been very consistent for the Vikings. A problem for Allen might be not knowing who will be on the Vikings' coaching staff. For his entire career in Minnesota, Leslie Frazier was the defensive coordinator and head coach.
Turning 32 in April, there's no way the Vikings will be willing to give him an increase. So it may come down to what other teams are willing to offer Allen as he looks to close out his career.