Last Friday saw quarterback Matt Cassel officially opt out of the final year of his two-year contract to head to free agency. The Vikings, as expected, also released starting linebacker Erin Henderson, who was arrested twice on drunk-driving charges late last year.
With that, the chess pieces on Minnesota's board have begun to move. The 2014 offseason began with the firing of head coach Leslie Frazier and the hiring of Mike Zimmer, the former defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman will try to assemble a team with fewer pawns and more power players to try to improve on last year's 5-10-1 record.
The NFL's official free-agency signing period begins on March 11, with players able to begin negotiating with clubs on March 8. That leaves teams with a month to continue to send out feelers and to keep examining their rosters to see where they can best spend their available dollars.
The Vikings head towards free agency with needs all over the field. Here we'll pick the ideal free agent for each position of need. We'll dial it down a little bit and not just pick the best player at each spot. We'll consider how likely it is that a player leaves his current team and also how likely it is that the Vikings would pursue the player, considering how much the market will bear for that particular guy.
Away we go.
Why quarterback is a need:
The only quarterback currently on the roster is Christian Ponder.
The ideal free-agent signing for Minnesota is Matt Cassel.
If nothing else, you have to give Matt Cassel a ton of credit for playing the NFL free-agency game almost perfectly.
Cassel signed a two-year deal with the Vikings before last season, which included an opt-out clause after the first season. Cassel proved time and again during the season that he was the best starting option for the Vikings and then exercised his out clause.
He signed with the Vikings last year for high-end backup money. Now he'll want to sign for starter money.
Cassel was due to make $3.7 million with Minnesota next season, but with so many teams desperate for starting quarterback help, he was wise to opt out of that deal.
Cassel will be turning 32 in May, so he's obviously not the long-term solution for the Vikings at quarterback. As reported by CBSSports.com, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner said at his introductory presser last week that the team is looking to add a young quarterback.
Cassel has to understand that he's not the future of the Minnesota Vikings, but that he will more than likely be the present. With the Vikings picking eighth in the draft, there is a good chance that the top three quarterbacks in the draft will be gone.
No matter what round the Vikings select a signal-caller, there is a good chance that player won't be expected to start right away, which means that Cassel could head into the season as the starter and hold the job as long as he deserves it.
That's all any player can really ask for.
NFL teams can get pretty crazy when it comes to signing a starting quarterback, so some team might offer crazy money to Cassel, who's proved himself as a capable starting option. The Vikings would have to weigh at what price they need Cassel back.
Their other options aren't very good.
Why running back is a need:
The probable departure of backup Toby Gerhart to free agency.
The ideal free-agent signing is Ray Graham or Felix Jones
The bad news first: Free-agent running back Toby Gerhart more than likely won't be back with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014.
The second-round pick in 2010 has been nothing but a true professional in his four seasons with the team. However, at 26-years old and entering the prime of his career, Gerhart has to be chomping at the bit to find out what he can do as a starter in the NFL.
He's not going to get that chance in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson around.
Okay, let's get to the good news: Adrian Peterson is still around.
The guess here is that the Vikings re-sign exclusive rights free agent Matt Asiata as their second back. Asiata has been a very good special teams player and filled in nicely in two games late in 2013.
If that happens, the Vikings need to sign a running back will be a very low priority this offseason. What they will be looking for is a guy who knows that Adrian Peterson is on the team and isn't looking for a ton of carries or opportunities.
Minnesota will be looking for a guy who can be a wrinkle for the offense, who can catch some passes out of the backfield and contribute on special teams.
Both Ray Graham and Felix Jones are worth kicking the tires on.
They are both smaller backs who could fill the roll of third back for the Vikings. Graham is small and quick, and although he didn't get much opportunity last season, he's worth bringing in for low money to see if he could win a roster spot.
Jones is a speedster who's never lived up to his status as a first-round pick and has had trouble staying healthy. Minnesota could provide him with an environment where he gets the ball in space and doesn't have to take on all the traffic at the line of scrimmage.
Why wide receiver is a need:
Beyond Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings receivers haven't proven anything.
The ideal free-agent signing is Jerome Simpson.
After releasing Erin Henderson on Friday, the Vikings are roughly $25 million under the salary cap, according to Overthecap.com.
And while the belief here is that Decker would start for the Vikings and contribute nicely, it's also the belief that his price tag won't merit the boost in production he would bring over Minnesota's own free-agent receiver, Jerome Simpson.
With Jennings and Patterson on hand, the need to add a pricey free agent just isn't there for Minnesota.
Simpson has been erratic at best in his two seasons with the Vikings, but his 48 receptions for 726 yards last year, along with a slew of downfield pass-interference calls, should have been enough to bring him back as part of the wide receiver corps.
It should help Simpson's cause in re-signing with Minnesota that he played his first three seasons in Cincinnati. So, new head coach Mike Zimmer is very familiar with his talents.
This slide is not to guess that Jerome Simpson is capable of much bigger things in the NFL. While that would certainly be great, the truth is that receiver is not a big priority for a team that has too many other gaping holes on its roster heading into next season.
Why defensive tackle is a need:
Minnesota needs a big body to man the nose tackle position.
The ideal free-agent signing is Linval Joseph.
The Minnesota Vikings need more mass in the middle of their defensive line.
The Vikings have been looking for a run-stuffer who can occupy blockers in the middle ever since they decided not to bring back Pat Williams after the 2010 season.
At 6'4", 323 pounds, Linval Joseph may be that guy.
Just 25 years old, Joseph has improved every year in his time with the New York Giants and would be a big improvement over Letroy Guion and Fred Evans at the Vikings' nose tackle position.
There remains hope that Minnesota will re-sign Kevin Williams, who played a couple of great games at nose tackle down the stretch. Williams would have to re-sign with the understanding that he'd be brought back as a limited-reps guy, with the team hoping that second-year man Sharrif Floyd is ready to take over full time at the "under" tackle spot.
Why defensive end is a need:
Jared Allen probably won't be back in purple.
The ideal free-agent signing is Everson Griffen.
There are a number of enticing names on the NFL defensive end free-agent list: Greg Hardy, Michael Bennett, Michael Johnson, Lamarr Houston.
Those guys have all proven themselves and will be pulling down top dollar. Some team will also throw a lot of money at Jared Allen, hoping a change of scenery and the sight of the finish line will prompt Allen to one or two more monster seasons.
The best move for the Vikings, though, will be to re-sign one of their own, Everson Griffen.
The 26-year old has spent four seasons as the third defensive end for Minnesota, and he's tantalized the team with his potential. It's time to see if that potential can be realized as a full-time player on the starting unit.
At 6'3", 273 pounds, Griffen has always been one of the most athletic players on the Vikings roster. Griffen, who was a star running back in high school, has done a little bit of everything for Minnesota, including a role as gunner on punt coverage.
He turned down a Vikings offer in October, figuring he could play his way to a bigger offer during the rest of the 2013 season. While that didn't necessarily happen, the Vikings will probably have to overpay to keep Griffen in the fold, as more than one team will be interested in signing a guy with so much physical talent.
Plain and simple, the Vikings need to sign Griffen and see what he can do as a full-time starter.
Why linebacker is a need:
The Vikings current roster only has one proven starter at linebacker.
The ideal free-agent signing is Jason Worilds.
Free-agent linebacker Jason Worilds certainly hasn't piled up huge tackle numbers in his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. What he has done, however, is picked up 13 sacks over the last two seasons, and that number is going to get him paid this offseason.
The Vikings are in dire need of help at linebacker. Chad Greenway is as dependable as it gets at one outside spot, but he's not the fleetest of foot. With the release of Erin Henderson, Minnesota is left with two promising youngsters in the middle in Audie Cole and Michael Mauti—neither of whom is all that fast nor proven to be all that productive.
Why not Brian Orakpo you might ask?
It's a good question, but the guess here is that Orakpo will simply be too expensive. With no first-round pick, it would be surprising if the Washington Redskins didn't go all in on re-signing their star linebacker.
At 6'2", 262 pounds, Worilds would give the Vikings both size and speed on the outside, and a pass-rushing threat from the linebacker spot, which Minnesota hasn't had in years.
The good news for the Vikings is that there are plenty of options at linebacker, both inside and outside and both in free agency and in the draft.
The guess here is that Minnesota might be more willing to drop dollars on a free-agent cornerback than an available linebacker, but it wouldn't be a huge shock if they tried to sign starters at both positions.
Why cornerback is need:
The Vikings' starting cornerbacks didn't intercept a pass last season.
The ideal free agent signing is Alterraun Verner.
The Tennessee Titans got Alterraun Verner in the fourth round of the 2010 draft because he was undersized. At 5'10", 187 pounds, he was the classic case of NFL scouts putting too much emphasis on size and other measurables.
Verner has played like a first-round pick from his first day in the league.
Verner has 11 interceptions in his four years with the Titans, including five last season. Considering how lacking in playmakers the Vikings secondary has been in recent years, those numbers might immediately get Verner into the team's Ring of Honor.
Verner is a smart, instinctual player who is more than a willing tackler against the run. His 23 passes defended in 2013 led the NFL.
Verner will cost a pretty penny, but at just 25 years old, Minnesota could plug him in across from Xavier Rhodes and be set at cornerback for years to come.
ESPN.com's Ben Goessling noted last month that the Vikings' pursuit of Verner might be likely considering their new defensive backs coach, Jerry Gray, was Verner's defensive coordinator in Tennessee.
Signing Verner would be a huge step towards the Vikings defense becoming a dominant unit once again.
Why safety is a need:
The Vikings' pass defense ranked 31st in the NFL last season.
The ideal free-agent signing is Jairus Byrd.
How nice would it be for the Vikings to have Jairus Byrd alongside Harrison Smith in their defensive backfield?
The 27-year-old safety is one of the best free agents on the market. After a contentious contract negotiation last offseason, the Buffalo Bills placed their franchise tag on Byrd and he was back with them in 2013.
He certainly didn't hurt his negotiating power heading into this offseason, picking up four interceptions in just 11 games. Byrd exploded into the NFL with a nine-interception season as a rookie in 2009, and he's added 13 more picks since then.
He's quite simply one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the NFL and is tough and hard-nosed against the run as well.
The Vikings obviously can't afford to sign both Verner and Byrd, bringing either one of them on board would be a gigantic get and a huge upgrade over what they've had in recent seasons.