Minnesota Vikings: Grading Every Position Heading into Free Agency
For general manager Rick Spielman, the first task at hand is obviously to hire a new head coach. Leslie Frazier was fired after three full seasons on the job with the team wallowing in mediocrity.
Beyond the coaching hire, Spielman will also have to begin to revamp a roster that finished 5-10-1 and had the 23rd-ranked passing offense in the league to go with a defense that gave up more points than any team in the NFL.
The Vikings are definitely a team in transition, and a lot of the faces from the last couple of seasons won't be around in 2014.
Here we'll put our GM hat on and evaluate every position for Minnesota in terms of how it stands now and whether or not the team needs to look to free agency to strengthen the position.
We'll assign grades on an "A-F" basis, with an "A" grade meaning there is no need think about bringing anybody else in; a "B" grade meaning they could use a minor bargain free agent; all the way down to an "F" grade which means alarm bells are going off and the team needs to sign an impact starter from the free-agent pool.
We'll make this as simple as possible: The Vikings don't need to go anywhere near any of the quarterbacks in the 2014 free-agent class. That includes Josh Freeman.
Yeah, we know, that means they should probably get an "A" grade here, but we're refusing to give the Vikings an "A" grade at quarterback under any circumstances.
This is certainly a fluid grade for Minnesota, as the biggest puzzle piece for the Vikings is whether or not Matt Cassel decides to opt out of the second year of his contract.
Cassel holds almost all the cards on what the Vikings will do at quarterback. If he decides to sign elsewhere, the Vikings would almost certainly try to find a new starter in the first round of the draft, or they'd be forced to head into 2014 with Christian Ponder slated to open as the starter.
If Cassel decides to stay in Minnesota, the team then would have the luxury of taking a quarterback in either the first or second round, knowing that whoever they took could learn under Cassel for at least a season.
If the Vikings do end up drafting a quarterback in the early rounds, it would be surprising to see both Cassel and Ponder back in 2014, although it's not completely out of the realm of possibility.
Obviously, whoever the Vikings name as their next head coach will have a huge say in the matter. The hope is that Cassel stays in Minnesota and helps mentor whichever quarterback the Vikings draft.
As for Freeman? He's lost it. Once a quarterback with a bright future in Tampa, his play began deteriorating badly in the second half of 2012. He looked even worse in 2013 and was waived by a winless team when the Vikings picked him up. He was unfairly thrown into the fire too quickly against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, but those terrible throws couldn't be excused by not knowing the offense.
They were throws by a guy who no longer belongs in the NFL.
Running Back: B
Yes, it seems odd to give a "B" grade at the running back position to a team that has Adrian Peterson.
But remember, this grade is only to mark how badly the team will need to look to free agency for help. While the Vikings would like nothing more than to re-sign current backup Toby Gerhart, you have to think that Gerhart would like to sign with a team that would provide him with more opportunities.
It was certainly a strange move when the Vikings, a team with the league's best running back, used a second-round pick on Gerhart in the 2010 draft. It was way too high a choice to use on a luxury pick, and that's all Gerhart has been in his four years with the team, a luxury.
Gerhart has proven himself to be capable almost every time he's been given a chance, but the truth is those chances come few and far between when you're on the same team as Peterson.
Gerhart has rushed the ball 276 times in his four seasons for 1,305 yards. As a comparison, Peterson had 279 attempts in 2013 for 1,266 yards. Washington's Alfred Morris finished with exactly 276 carries this season for 1,275 yards, good for fourth in the NFL.
All that said, it would be surprising if Gerhart didn't want to leave simply for professional reasons. He has the right to find out what he can do in this league as a starter. Some team will probably give him that opportunity, or at least the chance to fight for a starting job, something he won't get in Minnesota.
If Gerhart leaves, the Vikings will need to come up with a solid backup option to Peterson. Jordan Todman might be an interesting free agent to look at for Minnesota. He was impressive in Minnesota's 2012 training camp before being put on the practice squad and was eventually signed away by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Todman served as Maurice Jones-Drew's backup this season and had a 109 yards rushing in his only start. Todman is a smaller, quicker back and could be a nice receiving option on third downs. Obviously, with Peterson in tow, the Vikings don't need to spend a lot on a backup running back.
The Vikings will probably be lukewarm in free agency with both Matt Asiata and Zach Line on-hand to play backup roles.
Wide Receiver: A
There's really no need for the Vikings to look at the 2014 free-agent class of wide receivers.
The team signed one of the prized receivers in last year's free-agent class in Greg Jennings, who had a slightly frustrating season but put up much better numbers when Matt Cassel was at the helm instead of Christian Ponder.
There are some gems in this year's receiver class, but the likes of Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Hakeem Nicks will be looking to sign for the type of money that Minnesota doesn't want to spend on a third receiver.
Minnesota is certainly squared away with starters Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, who proved time and time again in his rookie season that he can be one of the best players in the league with the ball in his hands.
Beyond those two, Minnesota has Jarius Wright, who's still just scratched the surface of what he can do when given the chance. He could develop into a nice slot receiver for Minnesota beginning next season.
Minnesota will have to make a decision on their own free agent, Jerome Simpson. Simpson was much better in 2013 than he was in his first season in Minnesota, and if he could be signed for a reasonable deal, he'd be worth bringing back as guy who can certainly stretch a defense.
The Vikings also have several prospects in Greg Childs, Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith that could become contributors in 2014. They may add to that pool of prospects in the later rounds of the draft, as well.
Tight End: A
On a team riddled with problem positions on the roster, tight end is the least of the Minnesota Vikings' worries.
Even with John Carlson's future in doubt due to another concussion, the Vikings should be set moving forward with a healthy Kyle Rudolph and backups Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford.
It was a tough blow for Carlson, who played extremely well after Rudolph was lost for the season with a foot injury. Carlson suffered a concussion against the Ravens after being thrown to the turf and is taking some time to evaluate his football future.
2013 was almost a lost season for Ellison, who battled injuries for most of the year, but the Vikings remain extremely high on the young player, who's flashed every time he's been given an opportunity.
The same can also be said for Chase Ford, who took advantage of playing time in the latter half of the season and showed he can be a player in this league. Ford finished the season with 11 catches for 133 yards and proved to be a valuable addition to the team.
Offensive Line: B
There is certainly something to be said for continuity when it comes to NFL offensive lines.
The Vikings have had the same five offensive linemen start for two consecutive seasons, with only three missed starts among the group in the two seasons. They were excellent in 2012.
In 2013? Not so much.
It was an uneven season for Matt Kalil, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Brandon Fusco improved during his second season as a starter. Charlie Johnson, who is a free agent, wasn't very good.
While the Vikings need all of them to play better football in 2014, it would be surprising if they weren't all back in 2014, with the exception of Johnson. If they let Johnson sign elsewhere, the Vikings could fill his spot with second-year man Jeff Baca or look for another guard in this year's draft.
Don't look for the Vikings to spend much, if any, on free-agent offensive linemen. The guard class is pretty weak, the only slightly enticing options being former Viking Geoff Schwartz, who had a decent season in Kansas City, and Broncos guard Zane Beadles.
Defensive Line: F
With three of the Vikings' top five defensive linemen hitting free agency, it's time to sound the alarm bells in Minnesota.
It's generally assumed that the Vikings will part ways with their longest tenured and best two defensive linemen in Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. It will be bittersweet if that is indeed the case, as Allen and Williams have been consummate professionals and rank among the best to ever play on the defensive line for the Vikings.
The problem is that Allen and Williams are 31 and 33 years old respectively and neither one of them is the player he once was. The Vikings need to get vastly better on the defensive line and neither player is going to be a part of that process. Both players are looking for one more contract that will pay them handsomely next year and the Vikings would be foolish to offer that to either player.
What the Vikings need to do is lock up defensive end Everson Griffen to a long-term deal and plug him into the starting lineup. Griffen has long been a tantalizing prospect for the Vikings; he's flashed plenty of potential, but has yet to put up a consistently solid season from beginning to end.
Part of that has been due to limited opportunities, and that Griffen hasn't seized all of the opportunities he's been given.
There has been much talk of the Vikings flirting with a switch to a 3-4 defense, which obviously depends on what head coach is brought on. With Sharrif Floyd, Brian Robison and Griffen on hand, the Vikings would have three viable options no matter which type of defense they play.
What they still lack is a massive run-stopper in the middle. B.J. Raji, Linval Joseph and perhaps Henry Melton could be options for the Vikings as they look to shore up the middle of their defensive line. Minnesota might also look to the draft to fill their needs in the middle, which would certainly be a cheaper option.
Well, here's a position that went sideways for the Minnesota Vikings in a hurry.
Heading into 2013, the biggest question at linebacker in Minnesota was who would start in the middle between Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop. Now, just six months later, both players' futures in Minnesota are in doubt.
Bishop was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in mid-October, and his career may be in jeopardy. Henderson's future is just as murky after being arrested for DUI for the second time in six weeks on January 2. Henderson had lost his starting job to Audie Cole after his first arrest, and his days in Minnesota are probably over.
With Marvin Mitchell hitting free agency, that leaves the Vikings with Cole, Chad Greenway and Michael Mauti, with Greenway being the only established player in the group. While Cole and Mauti both look like they could be good players, neither has any speed, which the Vikings certainly lack in their linebacker corps.
The need for speed would only be enhanced if the team does indeed decide to move to a 3-4 alignment.
Brian Orakpo will be the prized free agent at linebacker, and if the Vikings do indeed part ways with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Henderson, they'd certainly have the cash to try to lure Orakpo to Minnesota.
Karlos Dansby was phenomenal in Arizona this year, but at 32 years old, teams might shy away from giving him a monster deal.
Barring a free-agent signing, the Vikings will have to look to take a linebacker high in this year's draft.
The Vikings have drafted three cornerbacks high in the draft over the last four years, and it looks like only one of them, Xavier Rhodes, was a worthwhile pick.
Chris Cook, taken in the second round with the Vikings' first pick of the 2010 draft, is a free agent and it's doubtful the team will make a big effort to bring him back. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the 50th-best free-agent cornerback available.
Cook hasn't played anywhere close to a full season yet, has yet to make an interception and only has 14 passes defended in 34 career games. Rhodes had 10 in his rookie season.
Josh Robinson, the speedster who was taken in the third round in 2012, had a decent rookie campaign, making two interceptions and defending the run well. The Vikings thought so much of him that they shifted him to the slot corner position that was open after they waived Antoine Winfield.
It was a disaster.
Robinson couldn't cover anyone and looked completely lost against the run.
Rhodes and Robinson will be back with the Vikings next year, along with perhaps Shaun Prater, who was serving as a warm body down the stretch for Minnesota.
Marcus Sherels is also a free agent, but look for the Vikings to keep him in the fold as their lead punt returner and as a last resort in coverage.
There are always good corners to be had in free agency, and it would be surprising if the Vikings didn't take that route this offseason. With so many other needs to fill in the draft, you'd think Minnesota would try to fill this hole with somebody experienced.
The big-money guys include the likes of Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, Chris Harris Jr. and Captain Munnerlyn. All but Grimes are younger than Cook.
A more affordable option would be Javier Arenas, who's never quite found his stride in Kansas City or Arizona, but has two career picks and could challenge Sherels for the punt returner role.
The Vikings are set at free safety with Harrison Smith proving he was more than worth moving back into the first round of the 2012 draft to acquire.
Smith has been good against the pass and the run and shows a high football IQ that will only lead to him getting better with experience.
One of the nice surprises of the dismal 2013 season was the play of Andrew Sendejo, who took over Smith's job while he was out with a turf toe injury. Sandejo finished third on the Vikings in tackles and also came up with an interception.
It's at the strong safety position that the Vikings need to upgrade. Thought of as a position of strength heading into 2013, the season proved that the Vikings need to add speed to their secondary and a safety who can play the pass.
Starter Jamarca Sanford plays more like a linebacker and just doesn't do well in pass coverage. He has just two career interceptions to go with his nine or 10 drops over the years. Mistral Raymond's play seemed to nosedive in 2013 and while Robert Blanton proved effective against the run as well, he can't cover people either.
T.J. Ward is the best of the strong safeties available in free agency. Ward was second on the Browns with 112 tackles and picked off two passes. Jairus Byrd of the Bills will command a lot of money with his 22 interceptions in five seasons, and although he plays free safety, that might not dissuade the Vikings from going after him, as Smith could easily adapt to playing strong safety.