Complete 2014 Minnesota Vikings Offseason Preview and Predictions
With another football season officially in the books, teams across the NFL are preparing for an offseason guaranteed to have its fair share of drama and excitement.
The Minnesota Vikings are no different in terms of player evaluations and personnel decisions, although they will likely need to take a more drastic approach in turning around such a disappointing year.
Each decision leading up to the regular season impacts other moves the team can take, specifically relating to free agency and the NFL draft.
I've outlined several of those scenarios in this offseason preview, making predictions along the way through the eyes of general manager Rick Spielman.
There's no denying that the next few months are going to be a busy affair. Let's get a jump start on some of the most important areas facing the club.
All contract details courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Re-Sign QB Matt Cassel
One of the most frustrating storylines for the Vikings in 2013 was the ongoing controversy at quarterback.
After Christian Ponder led the team to an 0-3 start, Matt Cassel stepped in for the deflated squad and helped lead Minnesota to victory in London against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That performance failed to secure the starting role for Cassel, and fans were treated to a weekly charade at the position that even included a $2 million guest appearance by Josh Freeman.
After all of the dust settled, Cassel was marginally the better option, finishing with 1,807 passing yards for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Ponder threw for 1,648 yards, including seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He did rush for four touchdowns compared with one score for Cassel on the ground.
Reports came out Wednesday, via KSTP.com, that Cassel will void his contract for 2014 under a player option in the deal, allowing the nine-year veteran to test the free-agent market.
This doesn't mean that Cassel has completely turned his back on Minnesota, but rather he will see if he can get starting money greater than the $3.7 million he was scheduled to earn.
Now the Vikings may have to up the ante a bit if they intend to keep the player who started the final four games for the team.
Look, the reality is that neither quarterback provides a long-term future for the Vikings. But Cassel gives the team the best option as a Day 1 starter and mentor for an incoming rookie quarterback.
The Vikings should bring him back as the favorite to start behind center. Even if he gets beat out by a quarterback prospect in training camp, Cassel has proved to be a solid backup.
Prediction: Vikings re-sign Cassel
Free Up Cap Space
A major point of business for Spielman will be to review the deals of all players currently under contract and determine whether any cuts or restructuring should take place.
Two players who jump out as candidates for contract restructuring include strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway and tight end John Carlson.
Greenway is scheduled to contribute $8.2 million against the cap, while ranking second to last among outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme, via PFF.
Carlson continues to be plagued by injuries, suffering his third concussion since 2011 last season. His anticipated cap hit stands at $5 million.
In addition to players who may be approached for a retooled deal, there are other Vikings who should be cut outright by the team.
Leading that group is defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who is currently scheduled to contribute $4.3 million against the cap.
That investment doesn't line up with his production over the past two years, ranking 60th out of 69 defensive tackles in 2013 and dead last among 85 players in 2012, via PFF.
If the Vikings cut Guion, they would only be required to pay $300,000 of his signing bonus, a huge cost savings for other offseason moves.
Erin Henderson has also likely played his last game in purple and gold, having been arrested for the second time in six weeks for driving under the influence.
Cutting the six-year veteran would save Minnesota nearly $2 million, with a scheduled cap hit of $2.25 million and only $250,000 in dead money.
Prediction: Vikings restructure contracts with Greenway and Carlson, cut Guion and Henderson
Sign Other In-house Free Agents
According to Spotrac.com, the Vikings have 16 unrestricted free agents (UFA). Larry Dean and Marcus Sherels are restricted free agents (RFA) and Matt Asiata is the only exclusive rights free agent (ERFA).
Minnesota clearly won't keep every player on this list, but there are top priorities who must be re-signed.
Defensive end Everson Griffen should receive the greatest attention by the front office.
Although he has played in the shadows of Jared Allen and Brian Robison, the former fourth-round draft pick has been extremely productive in reduced snaps.
Over the past three seasons, Griffen has recorded 17.5 sacks and 74 tackles. During that span, he has only started one game.
In addition to Griffen, the Vikings should also re-sign Fred Evans. The nose tackle who traded snaps with Guion was the better player. He ranked 31st against the run among 69 defensive tackles and 46th overall, via PFF. In 2012, Evans ranked as the 13th-best tackle.
Outside of those UFAs, the Vikings would get solid value by re-signing Sherels as an RFA. In addition to providing depth in the secondary, the Minnesota native had the second-highest punt return average (15.2 yards) among players with at least 16 returns.
Prediction: Vikings re-sign Griffen, Evans and Sherels
Players to Let Walk
The group of players likely on their way out the door feature a handful of notable names. Although debatable, those players should include Jared Allen, Toby Gerhart, Chris Cook and Charlie Johnson.
Two other players right on the edge are Kevin Williams and Jerome Simpson.
Starting with Allen, the decision to let the once-mullet-sporting defensive end walk won't come lightly. During his six years in Minnesota, Allen has 85.5 sacks, none of which ever included a season in single digits.
However, the 31-year-old will demand too much money in the open market, precious dollars Spielman needs to restock other positions on the roster. Allen took home a base salary of $14.28 million and contributed $17.064 million against the cap.
Gerhart finally has an opportunity to find a starting role with another team, or at least a time-share situation that provides more than 36 carries—the number of attempts the former Stanford Cardinal saw in all of 2013.
Cook and Johnson are players who could accept reasonably affordable offers but have played so poorly it's not worth another year in Minnesota.
According to PFF, Cook ranked 95th among 110 cornerbacks, while allowing the second-highest quarterback rating (140.3) for passes into his coverage. And the other point that crops up is that the former 34th overall draft pick has never intercepted a pass or forced a fumble.
Johnson wasn't nearly as awful as Cook under PFF's scoring system but still not worthy of a new offer. He finished the year ranked 48th overall at guard, with four sacks allowed, eight quarterback hits and 23 quarterback hurries. His run blocking ranked 58th despite the amount of talent on both sides of him.
Prediction: Vikings let Allen, Gerhart, Cook and Johnson walk
Target External Market
While squaring away the cast of players last season, the Vikings need to make an aggressive play in the external market for 2014.
Considering the number of moves already discussed, the front office has the opportunity to upgrade across the board at a competitive price.
Three positions I've highlighted are defensive end, linebacker and cornerback.
As shown in the video above, B/R's Aaron Nagler outlines an excellent case to bring in defensive end Michael Johnson from the Cincinnati Bengals.
In addition to previously playing for new head coach Mike Zimmer, Johnson has the size and speed to make a difference on the outside for the Vikings.
At 6'7" and 270 pounds, the former Yellow Jacket ran a 4.69 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Although he only recorded 3.5 sacks last season, Johnson finished tied for ninth in 2012 with 11.5 sacks.
Along the same line of thinking for player-coach relationship, incoming defensive coordinator George Edwards may help influence the pursuit of linebacker Arthur Moats. Edwards coached Moats with the Buffalo Bills from 2010 to 2011 as defensive coordinator.
The linebacker out of James Madison ranked as the 12th-best inside linebacker, via PFF, while securing 54 tackles in 16 games—14 of which he started.
Among cornerbacks set to hit the market, Vontae Davis stands out as an incredible playmaker who should be available at a reasonable price for the Vikings.
And even if the team has to pay a premium for the five-year veteran, it would be money well spent given the state of the secondary.
Davis dominated pass coverage in 2013, ranking second among cornerbacks, via PFF. He ranked third overall and finished the season for the Indianapolis Colts with 46 tackles, 12 passes defended and one interception.
With Xavier Rhodes stepping up as one of the few bright spots at cornerback, Davis would immediately make the Vikings defense better in a division dominated by the pass.
Prediction: Vikings sign Johnson and either Moats or Davis.
Draft Quarterback of the Future
Minnesota selects No. 8 in the upcoming NFL draft, causing fans around the country to speculate which direction the team will go.
It seems pretty obvious at this point that the Vikings are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback, one who can best utilize the talents of Adrian Peterson, Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson.
As it stands, four quarterbacks may be selected in any order ahead of Minnesota on draft night. The group includes Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.
When reviewing the collection of recent mock drafts, there doesn't appear to be a consensus pick for the Vikings in the first round—other than Johnny Manziel not being available.
ESPN's Mel Kiper (subscription required) has Teddy Bridgewater falling to Minnesota, a surprising scenario given that he seemed to lead the pack of quarterbacks in rankings throughout the college season.
B/R's own Matt Miller doesn't even give Minnesota the opportunity to draft one of the four top quarterbacks, which would probably force the team to select defense at its spot in the draft.
If any of the four top signal-callers are available when the Vikings go on the clock in May, Spielman should pull the trigger and attempt to erase the debacle that was Ponder.
Prediction: Vikings select Bortles or Carr in the first round of the draft
Rebuild Defense Through the Draft
Assuming the Vikings select quarterback in the first round, it needs to be all hands on deck in addressing the defense in subsequent rounds.
I've talked about some of the free-agent options for the team, but those same positions of need should be addressed in the draft.
Minnesota finished the 2013 season ranked 31st in passing yards allowed and dead last in points allowed (30). The team lost in the final minute of games on four occasions, all as a result of a collapse in the secondary.
Spielman made the right selection with Xavier Rhodes last year late in the first round, and he needs to go the same route early in the second round of 2014.
Ohio State's Bradley Roby would provide a great fit for the Vikings, who need a physical cornerback who can jam a receiver off the line and mirror him in man coverage.
Once cornerback is addressed, the next pressing needs fall on the defensive line and linebacker.
At defensive tackle, DaQuan Jones of Penn State and Daniel McCullers of Tennessee could both be potential options. Jones has good quickness in the pass rush, while the 6'7", 348-pound McCullers serves as a solid run stuffer at nose tackle.
For linebacker, a player like Jordan Zumwalt of UCLA has strong tackling ability and sound pursuit against the ball-carrier. He provides another young option for Minnesota to bring in and compete against Greenway and Marvin Mitchell.
Prediction: Vikings select Roby or best available cornerback in the second round of the draft
Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.
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