The best thing about an NFL offseason is the hope and promise provided by what may come. Each winter and spring there are free-agent classes and drafts full of talented football players whose acquisition inspires teams and their fans to dream of better days.
The Minnesota Vikings currently stand as a team with far more questions than answers. Minnesota's front office began addressing their lengthy "to do" list by hiring new head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer's fiery approach and "what you see is what you get" style is a breath of fresh air after the relatively placid approach of the previous staff.
As everyone who watches the NFL knows, breaths of fresh air usually last until a team's first turnover.
The Vikings' 2013 season was a torturous ride for its fanbase. Every question that lingered from a surprising playoff appearance after the 2012 season seemed to be answered in the negative.
Were head coach Leslie Frazier and his staff capable of nudging the team forward from their 2012 mark of 10-6? No. Was Christian Ponder improving at the normal rate of a third-year starting quarterback? No. Had the defense improved enough that they could afford to release one of its cornerstones, Antoine Winfield? No.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the 2013 season is that those answers were all more than apparent halfway through the season, with the team sitting with a miserable 1-7 record. The second half of the season devolved into a who's-on-first routine at quarterback and a team being guided by a lame-duck coaching staff.
It all ended with Minnesota finishing with a 5-10-1 record and the eighth selection in this spring's draft. The Vikings roster has talent, but it also has huge holes that need to be patched before the team can be considered a contender.
Let's take a look at the Vikings biggest positional needs heading into free agency and the draft.
Unfortunately for Minnesota Vikings fans, they didn't have to look very far to see a good comparison to the team's revolving door at quarterback in 2013.
Minnesota Twins fans have spent the last several seasons hoping for anyone who could grab the ball and throw it with authority. As good pitching is paramount to having a successful Major League Baseball team, good quarterbacking is vital to NFL success.
The Vikings drafted quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, and it simply hasn't worked out. Ponder joins a long list of first-round quarterbacks who have failed and in almost every instance, such a failure sets a franchise back a couple of seasons.
Problems tend to arise because teams are unwilling to admit that their selected quarterback doesn't have it. While it's true that many NFL quarterbacks need three or four years of nurturing to hit their stride, the list of quarterbacks who never work out is infinitely longer.
The Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl appearance on Sunday was in no small part due to their smart, quick and definitive decisions at quarterback. They signed highly-sought free agent Matt Flynn in 2012 to a big contract but immediately saw that rookie Russell Wilson was the better player and gave him the job.
The Vikings wisely brought in free-agent quarterback Matt Cassel last offseason to serve as an experienced backup and mentor to Ponder. Perhaps unwisely, they also brought on the waived Josh Freeman five weeks into the season and immediately threw him into the starting lineup.
In the end, the Vikings were a consistent mess at quarterback, but it was evident to everyone who watched that Cassel was their best option.
Speaking of options, Cassel has through Friday of this week to opt out of the second year of his deal with Minnesota.
Free Agent Wish List:
Keeping Cassel is the obvious priority. He proved he can be a capable starter and is the Vikings best option as a bridge to the next quarterback. Cassel is at least as good as any quarterback in free agency, and he's already proved that he's a team-first guy who can perform when called upon.
Draft Wish List:
It's crucial that the Vikings come up with at least a solid starting option at quarterback in the 2014 draft, but depending on what round they take one, it might not be critical.
While that might be a slightly confusing sentence, here's what we mean: If the Vikings use their first-round pick on a quarterback, it teeters towards critical that that player is the answer. Taking a quarterback at the expense of filling a huge hole on defense means it simply has to work out.
If the Vikings decide that none of the quarterbacks available to them at the time of their first pick is worth the gamble, they should draft for defense and take a quarterback later.
The top quarterback prospects of this draft are Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles, all of whom are solid first-round options. Derek Carr seems to be a player who some see as first-round talent and some don't. Carr might be the only one of the three available when the Vikings choose, and that would leave them with a tough decision.
If the Vikings aren't completely convinced that Carr or another prospect available at their first pick is the answer at quarterback, they should draft defense and look at other quarterbacks in the following rounds.
The next tier of quarterback options could include Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger and AJ McCarron. Again, if the Vikings aren't sold enough on that group to pull the trigger on one of them in the second round, they would be wise to fill another hole on defense and address the quarterback position in the third round.
The truth is, the long-term answer for the Vikings at quarterback may not be in the 2014 draft. They'll almost certainly have to take a shot on somebody in the first three rounds, but the higher they select one, the more important it is that that player be the guy around whom they can build.
If they sacrifice the chance of getting one or two defensive starters on a quarterback who doesn't pan out, they'll set the franchise back another two or three years. To wit, defensive stalwarts Robert Quinn, Nick Fairley, Ryan Kerrigan and Cameron Jordan were all selected just after Ponder in 2011.
With Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright on hand, wide receiver might be the least of the Minnesota Vikings' worries as they head towards free agency and the draft.
All three of those players seemed to get better once Matt Cassel took over at quarterback for the Vikings, and all of them should be looking forward to bigger numbers in 2014.
With that said, in today's NFL it seems that having an endless supply of capable wide receivers is a trait that most of the successful teams seem to have.
What the Vikings seem to have is a whole lot of maybes.
While Jennings has proved himself for years, and Patterson is clearly an elite talent, the rest of the Vikings receiving corps remains an unknown. Will Wright become a productive third receiver with better quarterback play? Can any of the other in-house receivers, including Greg Childs, Rodney Smith and Adam Thielen establish themselves?
Free-Agent Wish List:
You always want to add really good receivers to your team, but the price tag on the top tier free-agent wide receivers will be too high for the Vikings. Eric Decker, Golden Tate, Hakeem Nicks and Jeremy Maclin are all attractive options, but none are good enough to add, considering the cap dent they would bring with them. Decker has the most appeal, but it would be a shock if he didn't re-sign with Denver.
It's sort of deja vu all over again in terms of Jerome Simpson. Signed to a one-year "prove it" deal last offseason, Simpson certainly didn't prove it, but he flashed enough talent and potential to warrant another one-year deal.
Simpson is a deep threat who has a nice penchant for drawing pass-interference penalties deep downfield. A November DWI arrest hurts his search for the dollar, but the fact that new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is familiar with his talent—both used to be employed by the Cincinnati Bengals—doesn't shut the door on his return to Minnesota.
Draft Wish List:
Very low. Unless the Vikings see a receiver whose value far exceeds anyone else available at the time, it would be a surprise if Minnesota took a wideout before day three of the draft, if at all.
Vikings fans will all be reminded soon that sports is a business.
And that's the only reason that the beloved Jared Allen won't be wearing No. 69 for the Vikings in the fall of 2014.
Quite simply, Allen is a joy to watch. He has a playful, infectious spirit that reminds everyone involved that these are grown men making a living by playing a game. Allen is an all-time Vikings great, but his time in Minnesota is more than likely over.
Allen turns 32 in April, and his best days are behind him. As a free agent, Allen is looking for one more big contract and probably would like to sign with a team that will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender next season.
The truth is the Vikings have better places to spend their money than on an aging superstar. Will whoever lines up at right defensive end for the Vikings next season be as good as Allen? Probably not, but it will be a player who has more tread on his tires and cost a lot less than Allen.
Free-Agent Wish List:
Everson Griffen. Sign him, plug him in and watch him go. There are higher-profile free agents at defensive end than Griffen including Michael Bennett, Lamarr Houston and Arthur Jones, but perhaps none of them have the potential of Griffen.
For the Vikings, Griffen feels a lot like a highly coveted minor league prospect in baseball. We've seen too many flashes of star potential as a third defensive end to not find out what he can do as an every down player.
Griffen has a lethal combination of size, speed and athleticism that seems to be begging to be turned into a star in the NFL.
Given the opportunity to finally start and given that the Vikings new head coach is a defensive guru, it would be a shock if Minnesota didn't ink Griffen to a long-term deal.
Outside of Griffen, the likely candidate for whom for the Vikings to throw their pole into the water would be Michael Johnson, who played for Zimmer in Cincinnati over the last five seasons. Johnson had a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2012, and though he dipped to just 3.5 last year, he still was excellent against the run.
Zimmer sang his praises to the Dayton Daily News in early January.
Draft Wish List:
Very low. With Brian Robison and hopefully Griffen in tow, the Vikings have far too many other holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball to look for a defensive end during the first two days of the draft.
Kevin Williams may wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will certainly be inducted into the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor one day.
However, like Jared Allen from the previous slide, Williams days in Minnesota may be over.
And while there is probably a greater chance that Williams comes back than Allen, it would more than likely be in a dramatically limited role.
The Vikings selected Sharrif Floyd in the first round of the 2013 draft, and his ideal position is the under tackle spot that Williams has occupied for years.
The question the Vikings have to address is who will be lining up next to Floyd in the starting lineup.
Free-Agent Wish List:
Probably not a top priority. With Floyd being on the smaller side for a defensive tackle, the Vikings are more than likely looking for the massive type of interior player who can plug up the middle of the line of scrimmage.
Linval Joseph and B.J. Raji fit that mold, but both may cost more than Minnesota is willing to spend.
A more likely scenario would be to bring back Williams, who played some excellent games at nose guard late in the season and have him share time at that spot with a rookie or a cheaper free agent.
Both Fred Evans and Letroy Guion have been given plenty of opportunities to lock down a starting spot, and while Evans showed some flashes last season, neither is a good option as a starter.
Draft Wish List:
Pretty substantial. There seemingly is an infinite number of draft scenarios that could unfold for the Vikings, and picking a stout nose tackle in the early rounds figures in almost all of them.
There may not be any players at this position who warrant the No. 8 pick in the draft, but there are several who could populate the first three rounds.
A pair of Notre Dame defensive linemen are both dripping with potential. Louis Nix III is the prototypical NFL nose guard, at 6'2", 345 pounds. He's athletic and has a motor, but a 2013 knee injury might drop him a bit in the first round. Irish teammate Stephon Tuitt is 6'6", 312 and played all over the line in college.
Tuitt and Arizona State's Will Sutton are players Minnesota might consider in the second round.
Third-round options at defensive tackle could be Daniel McCullers of Tennessee and Justin Ellis of Louisiana Tech.
Outside of Chad Greenway's productivity, linebacker has been a pretty weak position for the Minnesota Vikings over the last several years.
After Jasper Brinkley struggled as a starter in 2012, the Vikings handed the middle linebacker job to Erin Henderson. Henderson's tackling numbers in 2013 were fine, but he didn't add a lot of oomph to a defense that was desperate for it. Henderson was twice arrested for DUI in the latter stages of the season, and his future with the team is in doubt.
Minnesota last season signed the versatile Desmond Bishop as a free agent, but the often-injured Bishop was lost for the season early on in 2013 after tearing his ACL against the Carolina Panthers in October. Bishop's future is murky at best.
The Vikings have three young linebackers in Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, who have all shown a bit of promise, but none of the three will ever be stars.
The Vikings are slow at linebacker and lack players with pop.
Free-Agent Wish List
There are two great options on the outside in Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds, but they will be two of the most sought-after players in free agency. That means they will cost a lot of money. With the Vikings already paying Greenway $6.5 million in 2014, they probably won't want to sink another huge chunk of salary into the position.
The best options in the middle are all too old for Minnesota to consider. Are the Vikings ready to contend for a Super Bowl in 2014? Probably not, so it doesn't make sense to sign the better options in the middle, a group that includes Karlos Dansby (32) and Daryl Smith (32).
Draft Wish List
It wouldn't be a surprise at all if the Vikings took a linebacker with the No. 8 overall selection in May's draft. Both Khalil Mack of the University of Buffalo and Anthony Barr of UCLA are prototypical speed-rushing linebackers who could be immediate impact players for the Vikings.
Mack seems to be more NFL ready, but both players project as stars in the NFL.
On the inside, C.J. Mosley of Alabama projects as an immediate starter and the type of player around whom you can build a defense.
If the Vikings go elsewhere with their first pick, there should still be some exciting options in the second round, especially on the outside.
Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and BYU's Kyle Van Noy could both step into Minnesota's starting lineup.
The good news for the Vikings is that this is a very heavy draft for outside linebackers, with as many as 12 projected to go in the first three rounds.
The Minnesota Vikings are desperate for defensive backs who can make plays on the ball.
The Vikings interception numbers over the last five seasons are awful. They haven't had a player pick off more than five passes since Darren Sharper stole nine eight seasons ago. Their starting cornerbacks have combined for just five interceptions over the last three seasons.
Xavier Rhodes flashed promise in the latter half of the 2013 season and proved that he will be a solid starter on one side of the field. Josh Robinson was handed the slot corner position to start the 2013 season, and he struggled mightily. Chris Cook is still looking for his first career interception, and it's a long shot that the Vikings will bring him back in 2014.
Free-Agent Wish List:
The first offseason rumor to gain steam in Minnesota has been the team's interest in cornerback Alrerraun Verner. Ben Goessling of ESPN.com notes that the Vikings' hiring of former Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray lends credence to those rumors.
Verner is just 25 years old and his ability to force turnovers—five interceptions in 2013 and 11 career picks—would be a monstrous boost to the Vikings secondary.
The Vikings going after Verner is the most likely move Minnesota makes in free agency and would be a huge get.
Draft Wish List:
This could be a huge priority. Obviously that would change if the team signed Verner, but he might come with a price tag that could scare off the Vikings.
There are two cornerback prospects who could be in play for Minnesota in the first round: Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State.
Both players could start for the Vikings immediately. Dennard is a bit smaller than Gilbert, but plays a little bit tougher. Dennard could become another Antoine Winfield. Gilbert is a bit better athlete than Dennard and will probably be more of an impact player against the pass. Gilbert's ceiling is perhaps just shy of that of the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson.
While at Oklahoma State, Gilbert returned five kickoffs for touchdowns, and while he most certainly wouldn't replace Cordarrelle Patterson in that role, he could wrest the punt return responsibilities from Marcus Sherels.
Second-round cornerback options the Vikings could have their eyes on include Jason Verrett of TCU, Marcus Roberson of Florida and Bradley Roby of Ohio State.
Beyond that are Louchiez Purifoy of Florida, Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska.