Minnesota Vikings: State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
While the Minnesota Vikings' offseason started December 30—the day following the last game ever played in the Metrodome, the 2014 NFL calendar year officially starts Tuesday, March 11. This is the day that 2013 contracts expire, and eligible players become free agents.
Since their season-ending 14-14 win over the Detroit Lions, the Vikings have been very busy getting their offseason underway.
They fired head coach Leslie Frazier and hired former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to replace him. They've signed nine players to reserve/future free-agent contracts and hired independent lawyers to investigate claims made by former punter Chris Kluwe against special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
Here's a look back at the 2013 season and how things are shaping up for the Vikings in 2014.
2013 Season in Review
Finishing with a 5-10-1 record in 2013 was a huge disappointment for the Minnesota Vikings—especially after making it into the playoffs with a 10-6 record in 2012. An 0-3 start set an ominous tone for the season.
By the time the team hit the midseason point with a 1-7 record, it was pretty clear that Leslie Frazier has a very tenuous hold on his job as head coach. An improvement of 4-3-1 over the last eight games was not enough to convince anyone that the playoff season of 2012 wasn't a fluke.
A Quarterback Carousel
The Vikings' 2013 season can pretty much be summed up by two words—quarterback carousel.
When the team signed veteran Matt Cassel in March, Frazier insisted that Christian Ponder was the Vikings' starter, and there was no quarterback competition.
Frazier maintained that position when the regular season opened, despite Ponder having the lowest quarterback rating of top-three quarterbacks during the preseason.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterbacks: Preseason Statistics
Perhaps Ponder may have benefited from more playing time in the preseason—he finished with fewer attempts than Cassel or McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Ponder opened the season, going 59-of-100 on passing for 691 yards, with two touchdowns and five interceptions. His passer rating for the first three games was only 65.8, with an 0-3 start to the season.
Week 4 saw the first quarterback change for the team—but not for the reasons most people were expecting. A rib injury suffered against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 prevented Ponder from playing in the London game.
It opened the door for Cassel to get the start and the Vikings' first win—defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27.
Cassel did not fare nearly as well the following game at home against Carolina. He threw for 242 yards against a very good defense, with a touchdown, but was picked off twice in a 35-10 loss to the Panthers.
That prompted another quarterback change in Week 7—and the start of a four-game losing streak.
During their bye week, the Vikings signed quarterback Josh Freeman and released Bethel-Thompson. After failed attempts by Tampa Bay to trade Freeman, they released him. Like Ponder, Freeman struggled and opened the season 0-3. His passer rating was even lower than Ponder's at 59.3.
It only took 15 days for Freeman to make his Vikings' debut. On October 21, he started a nationally televised game on Monday night in New York against the Giants. Freeman completed 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards as the Vikings lost 23-7. His passer rating for the game was a terrible 40.6.
The Freeman experiment lasted only the one game, as the Vikings fell to 1-6 on the season.
The Vikings turned to Ponder again at quarterback. This time he lasted six games, leading the Vikings to a 2-3-1 record. The Vikings played better with consecutive overtime games with a tie against the Packers in Green Bay Week 12, and a win over the Bears at home in Week 13.
A shoulder injury suffered against the Chicago Bears limited Ponder to eight passes and essentially ended his season—and the revolving door at quarterback.
Cassel made the final four starts of the season, leading the Vikings to a 2-2 record. This included a wild 29-26 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 14 that saw the lead change five times in the final 2:07 as the teams scored a combined 36 points.
In Week 15 against the Eagles at home, Cassel led the Vikings to a surprising 48-30 win. The 48 points were the most scored in a game for the Vikings since the historic 1998 season.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterbacks: Regular-Season Results
Note: Ponder is given credit for the overtime win over the Bears in Week 13, despite only throwing eight passes and being replaced in the second quarter.
A Setback for Adrian Peterson
After coming off the second-best rushing performance in NFL history, Adrian Peterson set some high goals for himself. During an interview on New Year's Eve with Dan Patrick, Peterson aimed to rush for 2,500 yards.
He opened the season with a bang, taking a handoff on the Vikings' first offensive play of the season 78 yards for a touchdown against the Lions in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was the omen to a record-breaking season. He finished the game with 93 yards on 18 carries—an average of less than a yard on his final 17 attempts.
Injuries forced him to miss two games this season and finish with only 1,266 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. A subpar season for the best running back in the NFL was still good enough to finish fifth in the league in rushing.
It's the third straight year Peterson has undergone surgery following the season. In 2011, it was to repair his knee. In 2012, he finished the season with a sports hernia, and this year he had surgery to repair his groin.
A Struggling Defense
Despite the revolving door at quarterback, the offense still averaged more than 24 points per game this year. Unfortunately, the Vikings defense gave up 30 points per game—ranking them last in the league.
Before the season began, the Vikings took a gamble and released veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. The hope was to re-sign the 35-year-old to a new contract at a lower price—the gamble failed, and the defense suffered for it.
The Vikings used one of their three, first-round draft picks to select cornerback Xavier Rhodes out of Florida State—but it took them a while to insert him into the starting lineup. Rhodes only started six games before suffering an injury in Week 14 against the Ravens, missing the final three games. Still, he played well enough to lead the Vikings by breaking up 10 passes.
For the fourth consecutive season, cornerback Chris Cook failed to make it through an entire season. He missed four games this season due to injury. A pending free agent, look for Cook and the Vikings to part ways. The Vikings secondary also suffered from missing Harrison Smith for eight games with a turf-toe injury.
The Vikings lost four games this season, when the defense gave up the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game. Three of these games were on the road, at Chicago in Week 2, Dallas in Week 9 and at Baltimore in Week 14.
In their Week 12 tie with the Packers, the defense gave up a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Packers tied the game on a field goal with 0:50 left in the fourth quarter.
If the defense could have made one play in each of those five games to preserve the win, the Vikings would have matched their 10-6 record from 2012.
How bad was the defense? Check out the following table.
2013 Minnesota Vikings: Defensive Rankings
|Total Yards Allowed||31st|
|Passing Yards Allowed||31st|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||16th|
|Time of Possession||31st|
What makes these rankings even worse is that Leslie Frazier was the Vikings' defensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach.
Impending Free Agents
According to Spotrac, the Minnesota Vikings have 20 players who can become free agents on March 11—including 17 unrestricted free agents (UFA), two restricted free agents (RFA) and one exclusive-rights free agent (ERFA).
The difference between an UFA, RFA and a ERFA is years of service. Players with less than four years of tenure in the league are considered restricted free agents. If these players sign an offer sheet with another team, the Vikings can match the offer within seven days and retain the player.
The two restricted free agents for the Vikings are special teams players, linebacker Larry Dean and punt returner and backup cornerback Marcus Sherels. Both players joined the Vikings as undrafted free agents in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
The one ERFA on the roster is running back Matt Asiata. He made two starts for the Vikings this season, against Philadelphia in Week 15 and Detroit in Week 17. The outcomes of his two starts produced very different results. Against the Eagles, he rushed for only 51 yards on 30 carries but scored three touchdowns. Against the Lions, he finished with 115 yards on only 14 carries but failed to score.
Since Toby Gerhart is one of the unrestricted free agents, there's a good bet that the Vikings will offer Asiata a contract to retain his services to back up Adrian Peterson.
Like both Dean and Sherels, Asiata joined the team as a rookie free agent.
This list also includes quarterback Matt Cassel, who signed a two-year deal with the Vikings last March. There is a two-way option included in the contract that allows either Cassel or the Vikings to opt out in 2014.
These 20 players were paid about $44.25 million in 2013 salaries—the largest being $17.1 million to defensive end Jared Allen. Of these 20 players, 14 of them started at least one game for the Vikings in 2013.
There is a window between March 8 and 11, where teams can negotiate with their unrestricted free agents.
The following table highlights the 20 players and predicts which ones may return to the Vikings in 2014. The data comes from Spotrac and Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Minnesota Vikings Pending Free Agents in 2014
|Jared Allen||DE||16||$17.1 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Kevin Williams||DT||15||$5.0 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Charlie Johnson||OG||15||$3.8 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Matt Cassel||QB||6||$3.7 million||UFA||Probably|
|Jerome Simpson||WR||9||$2.1 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Josh Freeman||QB||1||$2.0 million||UFA||No way|
|Fred Evans||NT||3||$1.75 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Chris Cook||CB||11||$1.3 million||UFA||No way|
|Toby Gerhart||RB||0||$1.3 million||UFA||Unlikely|
|Seth Olsen||OG||0||$670,000||UFA||No way|
|Marvin Mitchell||LB||10||$605,000||UFA||No way|
|Levi Horn||OT||0||Not listed||UFA||Unlikely|
The biggest decisions for the Vikings will be on Cassel, Sherels, Asiata and defensive end Everson Griffen. With Dean and Sherels as restricted free agents, there's a very good bet that the Vikings will be able to re-sign them, without having to match any offer sheets.
As for Cassel and Asiata, these two were key backup players in 2013. Even so, look for the Vikings to select a quarterback and a running back in the upcoming draft. The only reason Cassel doesn't return is if another team is willing to make him their starting quarterback in 2014—an unlikely proposition.
It's unlikely the Vikings will be willing to pay Allen enough to retain his services, despite leading the team in sacks the past six seasons. That means the Vikings will try to re-sign Griffen, who has been the leading backup at defensive end. Griffen has 17.5 sacks over the last three years.
Biggest Needs to Be Addressed
- Defensive end
- Offensive guard
With the loss of several free agents as pointed out on the previous slide, the Minnesota Vikings will need to plug some holes and address some deficiencies at key positions in 2014.
The importance by position is:
Even though the offense finished in the upper half of the NFL with a scoring average of 24.4 points per game, it was 23rd in passing offense. The Vikings need to settle on one quarterback, ending the revolving door that plagued the them last season. They need to find a franchise quarterback, and soon, if they wish to take advantage of running back Adrian Peterson to provide a balanced offensive attack.
If a top quarterback is available to the Vikings with the eighth pick in the draft, they will not hesitate to add him to the roster. However, if Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles are all off the draft board, then the Vikings will look to the defense, addressing the quarterback position in the second round.
A quick scan of 11 different 2014 NFL mock drafts has the Vikings taking a quarterback with the eighth pick in nine of them. The most projected player taken by the Vikings is Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. In the other two mocks, the Vikings select linebacker Khalil Mack from Buffalo University.
As pointed out previously, the Minnesota Vikings' passing defense was terrible in 2013. On the bright side, it should be easy for the new coaching staff to make improvements—statistically, there's only one direction to go.
Before the start of the 2013 season, cornerback Chris Cook wanted to cover the opposing team's top receiver, per Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com—that didn't work out too well for him in 2013. This was most evident in a Week 13 matchup against the Chicago Bears.
In the overtime win, Cook was matched up for most of the game against Alshon Jefferey, while rookie Xavier Rhodes covered Brandon Marshall. Jefferey finished with 12 catches for a Chicago franchise record of 249 yards and two touchdowns. Rhodes limited Marshall to only four catches and 45 yards.
The Vikings used seven different cornerbacks this season, eight if you include Robert Blanton, who started three games this season as the cornerback position, due to being decimated with injuries. Only Blanton and backup cornerback Marcus Sherels were available for all 16 games. Cook led the way, making 11 starts, with second-year player Josh Robinson making 10 starts.
Sherels, A.J. Jefferson and Shaun Prater combined to make six starts this season combined for three interceptions, the only interceptions made by cornerbacks in 2013.
The Vikings need to upgrade the talent level at the position, as well as find some depth. As pointed out on the previous slide, it's not likely that Cook, an impending free agent, will remain with the team.
That could change if the new coaching staff sees some value in Cook, who is 6'2" and 212 pounds. His best bet on staying with the club would be as a backup as the teams looks to find an upgrade to start with Rhodes.
Along with selecting another cornerback in either the second or third round of the draft, the Vikings might attempt an upgrade through free agency.
According to WalterFootball.com, four of the top five free-agent cornerbacks are all under the age of 27. Vontae Davis (26) from Indianapolis, Captain Munnerlyn (26) from Carolina, Sam Shields (26) from Green Bay and Alterrnaun Verner (25) from Tennessee are all rated at least three-and-a-half stars out of four.
With the pending loss of Jared Allen and the top backup of Everson Griffen, an argument could be made that defensive end is more important than cornerback. With Allen leading the team with 11.5 sacks, the Vikings finished 13th in the league with 41 sacks—33 of them coming from the defensive line.
The top three sack producers were defensive ends, Allen, Brian Robison (nine) and Griffen (5.5). Allen has led the Vikings since he joined the team in 2008, averaging 14.25 sacks per season. As the main backup, Griffen has 17.5 sacks in four years with only one start under his belt.
The previous coaching staff was so high on Griffen, that they tried to find a position for him and attempted to move him to outside linebacker—another position of need for the Vikings.
If the Vikings don't retain either Allen or Griffen, they will need to find someone that has the potential to contribute double-digit sacks this season. Outside of quarterbacks, the players most often predicted to be drafted by the Vikings with the eighth pick are linebackers Mack and Anthony Barr—who finished with 10.5 and 10 sacks last season. Both could become pass rushing specialists in the NFL.
The Vikings had almost as many problems with a revolving door at linebacker as they did at quarterback. Only strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway, started all 16 games last season. The Vikings had four players start at least one game at linebacker.
They opened the season, moving weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson to the middle linebacker position and starting veteran backup Marvin Mitchell at the weak side. Before last season, Mitchell had made only one start is six seasons.
The Vikings signed Desmond Bishop from Green Bay as a free agent before the season. He missed the entire 2012 season with a hamstring injury that required surgery. Just as Bishop broke into the starting lineup, displacing Mitchell, he suffered a torn ACL in Week 6 against Carolina.
After Henderson was arrested and charged for a suspected DWI in November, he was demoted to backup, allowing Audie Cole to start at middle linebacker. Cole made his first start of the season in Week 12 against the Packers—15 days after the team had waived him and then re-signed him to the roster. In that game, Cole led the Vikings with 11 tackles.
An injury prevented Cole from playing in the final game against Detroit, allowing Henderson to start once again.
Unfortunately for Henderson, he was arrested for a second time on New Year's Day for suspicion of a DUI when he was involved in a one-car accident. His days could be numbered as the Vikings await the opportunity to waive him after the Super Bowl.
With the instability at linebacker, and the fact that Greenway turned 31 last month, the Vikings desperately need to find a couple of starters. They return second-year linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, who played together at Penn State, but they will need to find a playmaker that can make an immediate impact on defense in 2014.
The Vikings opened the 2013 season with the same five starters on the offensive line from 2012—but the results were not quite the same.
|Year||Sacks Allowed||Rushing (yds/att)|
A lot of the differences are due to three different starting quarterbacks, and from having to play from behind in many games.
In 2012, the offensive line remained intact for all 16 game. In 2013 three players missed one game—right guard Charlie Johnson, left guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
Johnson, who is a pending free agent, is the oldest player on the offensive line. He turns 30 this May. The Vikings selected a couple of guards as his potential replacement in last year's draft, taking Jeff Baca out of UCLA in the sixth round and Travis Bond from North Carolina in the seventh. Baca made the active roster as a backup, but the Vikings lost Bond in November, when the Carolina Panthers signed him.
The Vikings will need to find a capable guard to take over for Johnson, and if Baca is the man, then they will need to find some depth. Since the end of the 2013 season, the Vikings have signed two offensive linemen to reserves/futures contracts.
Hopefully, the team will have some consistency at quarterback, and a healthy Adrian Peterson in the backfield to help stabilize the offensive line play.
Last month, I broke down the Minnesota Vikings salary-cap situation heading into 2014. Based on information from Over the Cap, the Vikings will have between $22 and $24 million in cap space to work with heading into the 2014 season.
A team's cap number is based on the total salary of their top 51 players as of March 11. It's calculated this way in order to account for the 90-player roster limit heading into training camp.
The Vikings will need to be prudent in order to address their most pressing needs at quarterback, cornerback and linebacker.
It unfortunately means that they will be unlikely to re-sign defensive end Jared Allen, who was the top paid player at his position last season with a base salary of $14.28 million, per Spotrac—and second in the NFL to only quarterback Peyton Manning of the Broncos with a base salary of $15 million.
The Vikings still have a lot of money tied up in Adrian Peterson, who is the highest paid running back in the NFL and linebacker Chad Greenway, who is the second-highest paid outside linebacker, per Spotrac.
The following table lists the Vikings' 15 top paid players currently under contract.
|Player||Position||2014 Base Salary||Change|
|Adrian Peterson||RB||$11.75 million||$500,000|
|Chad Greenway||OLB||$6.9 million||($500,000)|
|Greg Jennings||WR||$4.9 million||$2.0 million|
|Brian Robison||DE||$4.0 million||$600,000|
|Letroy Guion||NT||$3.95 million||$1.5 million|
|John Carlson||TE||$3.9 million||$2.4 million|
|John Sullivan||C||$3.65 million||$500,000|
|Phil Loadholt||RT||$3.4 million||$500,000|
|Matt Cassel||QB||$3.15 million||$1.5 million|
|Jamarca Sanford||S||$2.5 million||$1.0 million|
|Matt Kalil||LT||$2.2 million||$898,663|
|Erin Henderson||LB||$1.9 million||$1.0 million|
|Jerome Felton||FB||$1.95 million||$1.25 million|
|Christian Ponder||QB||$1.8 million||$461,000|
|Brandon Fusco||RG||$1.4 million||$834,000|
There's a good bet that the team will be looking to move several of these players—especially those who are paid more as backups than the projected starters. The players in most danger of being either traded or released in order to save some cap space are Guion and Carlson. For other reasons, Ponder and Henderson could also be gone before the 2014 season begins.
With the firing of head coach Leslie Frazier on December 30, the first order of business for the Minnesota Vikings this offseason was to find his replacement. It only took them a little more than two weeks to name former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as the ninth head coach in franchise history.
The coaching staff is very much in flux as Zimmer looks to assemble his team. The official website for the Minnesota Vikings, Vikings.com, currently only lists Zimmer on the coaching staff.
In his five seasons as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, the Bengals' average rank in points allowed was eighth. They gave up an average of 20.4 points per game—something the Vikings desperately need to improve upon. The Vikings gave up an average of 30 points per game last season.
Like his predecessor, this will be Zimmer's first head coaching job in the NFL.
Alex Marvez from Fox Sports tweeted last month that George Edwards, the former linebacker coach for the Miami Dolphins, will be the Vikings' defensive coordinator. Twice previously, Edwards has been a defensive coordinator in the NFL—2003 with the Washington Redskins and 2010-11 for the Bills.
Hopefully, Zimmer will have a huge influence on the defense. Edwards' defenses were ranked 24th in points allowed in 2003 in Washington and no better than 28th during his two seasons in Buffalo.
On January 18, CBS Sports reported that Norv Turner will be the Vikings' offensive coordinator, the same role he held with the Cleveland Browns last season.
As pointed out by B/R featured columnist Zach Kruse, Turner has a history of success coaching a number of elite running backs, including Emmitt Smith with the Cowboys, Stephen Davis while playing with the Redskins and LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.
Cleveland's passing offense was a surprise last season, finishing 11th in passing yards, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, despite having three different quarterbacks start during the season—doesn't that sound familiar?
According to a story by Dan Zinski from The Viking Age, Zimmer is assembling a very fiery coaching staff that includes former Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray as the defensive backs coach and former University of Idaho head coach Robb Akey as the defensive line coach.
Both coaches have a history of speaking their minds and telling it like it is—even when the message may not meet with approval.
It also appears that the Vikings will be employing a couple of father-son combinations.
According to a report by Master Tesfatsion from the Star Tribune, Scott Turner will be the Vikings' next quarterback coach. Tesfatsion also reporrts that Adam Zimmer will join the staff, but they do not indicate in what role. Last season, the younger Zimmer was the assistant defensive backs coach for his father's defense in Cincinnati.
As far as any of the existing coaches sticking around, the best bet so far appears to be offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. Another tweet from Marvez indicated that the Vikings denied a request from Atlanta to interview Davidson for the same position.
No doubt Zimmer is working feverishly to assemble his coaching staff so that they can go about improving the Vikings. Once the staff is in place, they will need to determine what schemes they want to run on offense and defense and then match the personnel to those schemes—vice versa.
2014 Draft Preview
No doubt by now, it is very obvious that the Vikings' greatest need is at quarterback, and as pointed out by CBSSports.com, most mock drafts have the Vikings taking Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr.
As a senior, Carr led the NCAA in passing with 5,083 yards and 50 touchdowns, per Sports-Reference.com/College Football. He only threw eight interceptions as he led the Bulldogs to an 11-3 record.
It's entirely possible the Vikings might pass on Carr, looking to improve the defense—especially if they don't believe he can be the franchise quarterback they are looking for. According to WalterFootball.com, Carr is projected as a first- or second-round pick. The last thing the Vikings can afford to do is reach for another quarterback in the first round.
With the success of some recent second- and third-round quarterbacks—including 2012 third-round picks Russell Wilson and Nick Foles and second-round picks Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton in 2011—the Vikings may choose to gamble and wait.
An option later in the draft at quarterback might be Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois. This past season for the Panthers, Garoppolo passed for 5,050 yards with 53 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
If the Vikings address the defense in the first round, look for them to select either linebacker Khalil Mack from Buffalo or Anthony Barr from UCLA. As pointed out earlier, both players are versatile enough to possibly fill needs at either outside linebacker or defensive end. Both players finished with 10 or more sacks this past season.
No matter what position the Vikings address in the first round, look for them to draft a cornerback and linebacker early in the draft and then add a running back and an offensive lineman in the middle rounds.