Even though the 2014 NFL draft is more than two months away, the Minnesota Vikings can significantly improve their roster by signing some key free agents. It's getting very close to pothole season in Minnesota, and the Vikings have a few potholes of their own in their roster that need to be filled.
According to Spotrac, the Vikings have 20 free agents—including the release of Erin Henderson last Friday. Ordinarily this is where most teams would start their free-agent analyses, having the most knowledge of their own players.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, most of the coaching staff has been replaced, with only wide receiver coach George Stewart, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer returning in 2014.
That doesn't necessarily bode well for any free agents hoping to re-sign with the team. That and the fact that general manager Rick Spielman does not take too many dips into the free-agent pool even further diminish the possibilities.
Here's a look at some key free agents for the Vikings at quarterback, defensive end, linebacker and cornerback—and the odds of them signing with Minnesota. Of course the Vikings also have needs at defensive tackle and guard, but perhaps we'll tackle those later.
The criteria used to determine the odds included their age, the value of their last contract, their 2013 performance and their career trajectories.
Player: Matt Cassel
2013 cap hit: $3.7 million
Last week, Cassel became a free agent when he opted out of the second year of his contract with the Vikings. Last year he finished 3-3 in six starts as the Vikings' best quarterback. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His passer rating of 81.6 was the highest since 2010 when he finished 10-5 for the Kansas City Chiefs with a 93.0 passer rating.
Cassel is looking for a chance to start, something that he wasn't given until it was obvious that Christian Ponder wasn't the answer. Now, Ponder is the only quarterback under contract, putting the Vikings in a tough spot.
The free-agent market for quarterbacks is not that strong, giving Cassel a little extra leverage. Along with the fact the Vikings will most likely be looking for a quarterback in the draft, the odds of Cassel re-signing with the Vikings are not great.
Odds: Less than 40 percent. If Cassel re-signs it will cost the Vikings a lot more than the $3.7 million he was to be paid in 2014, and he will most likely need some assurances of being the starter. A lot will depend on what the Vikings believe they can do at this position in the draft.
Player: Josh McCown
2013 cap hit: $840,000
As stated on the previous slide, the free-agent pool for quarterbacks is not that deep. According to Walter Football.com, the top three free agents at quarterback are Josh McCown, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman—Freeman, really? I guess Walter did not see Freeman's debut with the Vikings in Week 7.
Last year McCown led the Chicago Bears to a 3-2 record in five starts. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. His passer rating was an impressive 109—the highest in his 11-year career. He played so well last season that there were plenty of people thinking he should replace Jay Cutler, including former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw on Fox.
The problem is McCown will turn 35 this summer, and the Vikings are not very high on players over 30. The past couple of years they have repeatedly parted ways with the older players on the roster. Most notably is cornerback Antoine Winfield's release last season when he was 35.
A career backup, the most games McCown ever started in a season was 13 in 2004 for the Arizona Cardinals. He could be easier to sign since he may not have expectations of starting.
Odds: No better than 20 percent. His age and the possible competition for a capable backup in the NFL will keep him from becoming a Viking.
Player: Jared Allen
2013 cap hit: $17.1 million
Allen has been the Vikings' best defensive player since joining the team in 2008—as well as the most durable. He started all 96 games in the six seasons he played in Minnesota, leading the team in sacks every year. He ranks third for the Vikings in sacks with 85.5, just 11 sacks behind Chris Doleman.
Since setting the Minnesota franchise record with 22 sacks in 2011, his numbers have declined. While that statement is entirely true, going from 22 sacks in 2011 to 12 sacks in 2012 and 11.5 sacks in 2013, Allen is still a force on the defensive line.
The problem is how much the five-time Pro Bowler will want to be paid in 2014. It's very unlikely that general manager Rick Spielman will change his ways and offer a long-term contract to a player on the back side of his career.
Odds: Less than 10 percent. The Vikings, particularly Spielman, have no loyalty to veteran players who are pricing themselves out of Minnesota.
Player: Everson Griffen
2013 cap hit: $765,000
The previous coaching staff has been high on Griffen since selecting him in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. Unable to break into the starting lineup behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison at defensive end, the team even tried to move him to linebacker—a move that failed.
In only one start over the past two seasons, Griffen has finished third on the team in sacks. His best season came in 2012 when he finished with eight sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown and two fumble recoveries.
Working in the Vikings' favor would have been that they know more about the type of player Griffen is than any other team—but with a new coaching staff, that advantage is gone. Another point potentially working against the Vikings is the fact that Griffen played for Seattle head coach Pete Carroll in college at USC. If the Seattle Seahawks fail to re-sign Michael Bennett, Griffen could be on their radar.
I'm surprised the Vikings didn't attempt to sign him during the season as the heir apparent to Allen. In February 2011, Griffen was arrested twice within a three-day period, once for being drunk in public and the second for driving with an invalid license. Since then, Griffen has had no off-the-field problems that would dissuade the Vikings from re-signing him.
As Brian Dezelske tweeted last week, re-signing Griffen is a no-brainer, and he is a player whom the Vikings can get relatively cheap—for this next contract at least.
Odds: Right around 50 percent—it's just been too quiet to know for sure. No doubt, new head coach Mike Zimmer would know how to use him.
Player: Michael Johnson
2013 cap hit: $11.2 million
Johnson is coming off a one-year contract with Cincinnati after the Cincinnati Bengals used their franchise tag to retain his services for 2013. Now they need to decide if they are willing to step up and re-sign him to a contract that, according to Josh Kirkendall at Cincy Jungle, could cost them more than $10 million per season.
Johnson earned the franchise tag after recording 11.5 sacks in 2012. That number dropped to only 3.5 sacks last season—his lowest total over the last four years. That didn't mean he wasn't a factor at the line of scrimmage. Johnson finished third for the Bengals last season with 10 passes defended—a total that matched the Vikings' best from cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
According to WalterFootball.com, Johnson is the sixth-best defensive end in free agency, one spot below Jared Allen. Working in his favor over Allen is the fact that Johnson is five years younger and still in the prime of his career.
The main reason Johnson is on the Vikings' radar is because new head coach Mike Zimmer was his defensive coordinator last season in Cincinnati. Johnson's next contract is going to be significant, and unless Zimmer can convince the Vikings he is the next coming of Allen, I don't see Johnson wearing purple.
There's not a whole lot to lure him away from a playoff team, whether it's Cincinnati or elsewhere, just to join Zimmer with the Vikings.
Odds: Less than 5 percent—with cheaper options available, Johnson's price tag is prohibitive.
Player: Jason Worilds
2013 Cap hit: $985,000
If the Vikings fail to re-sign Everson Griffen, a cheaper option at defensive end over Johnson from Cincinnati might be Jason Worilds. Of course that statement is mainly based on what each player was paid last season. Statistically, Worilds outperformed both Griffen and Johnson. He led the Pittsburgh Steelers with eight sacks and finished fourth with 63 tackles in 11 starts last season.
Worilds, having played outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, would give the Vikings some flexibility. However, at only 6'2" and 240 pounds, he might be a little small to play defensive end. A lot may depend on what scheme Coach Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards choose to go with this season.
Odds: No better than 30 percent, depending upon his asking price
Player: Desmond Bishop
2013 cap hit: $850,000
The last two seasons Bishop has played in only four games. After finally breaking into the starting lineup for the Vikings at weak-side linebacker in Week 6, he suffered a torn ACL, ending his season. This injury came after missing the entire 2012 season for the Green Bay Packers with a torn hamstring suffered during the preseason that required surgery.
Signing Bishop to a one-year contract last season was low-risk and looked ready to pay dividends until the injury. Before his hamstring injury, Bishop started 25 games in 2010 and 2011 for the Packers at inside linebacker as part of their 3-4 defense.
Not working in his favor—besides the injuries—is the fact that he turns 30 in July.
Odds: Less than a 5 percent chance he returns. It would have to be a very incentive-laden contract at the veteran minimum for the Vikings to consider bringing him back after the last two injuries wiped out most of two years for him.
Player: Donald Butler
2013 cap hit: $865,000
Just as Desmond Bishop played inside linebacker on the Packers' 3-4 defense, so did Butler last year in San Diego. He finished second for the San Diego Chargers with 85 tackles. Depending on the scheme used by the Vikings, Butler could play either middle or weak-side linebacker.
Ranked as the third-best inside linebacker by WalterFootball.com, the Vikings could have plenty of competition for the third-year pro and three-year starter. There is a possibility the Chargers could use the franchise tag to keep Butler in San Diego.
The Vikings could certainly use his services alongside an aging Chad Greenway at the linebacker position.
Odds: 40 percent—it's a position of need and may depend on who the Vikings think might be available with the eighth pick in the draft.
Player: Vincent Rey
2013 cap hit: $630,000
Ranked just below Donald Butler by WalterFootball.com, Rey could follow Zimmer to Minnesota. Listed among a number of free-agent targets by Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN, Rey graded out as the third-best, free-agent linebacker by Pro Football Focus.
An undrafted rookie free agent in 2010, Rey started three games last season in place of Rey Maualuga. He finished the season with four sacks, two interceptions—one returned for a touchdown, a fumble recovery and 37 tackles. Outside of tackles, those numbers compare favorably with Erin Henderson's statistics from last season.
Odds: No better than 25 percent—Rey fits in where the Vikings tend to dabble in free agency, and there is the familiarity with Zimmer.
Player: Brandon Spikes
2013 cap hit: $870,000
A 2010 second-round draft pick for the New England Patriots, Spikes started 25 games the past two seasons. Last season he finished third in tackles with 86 tackles in 11 starts. He also has an interception and a fumble recovery.
Pro Football Focus ranks Spikes as the second-best linebacker available in free agency. A quick scan of Twitter finds a lot of interest in Spikes. According to WalterFootball.com, Spikes' strength is in stopping the run—the Vikings defense could use a boost against the run after dropping to 16th in the NFL last season.
Odds: Less than 30 percent. Like Butler and Rey, Spikes is a young linebacker just coming into his prime.
Player: Chris Cook
2013 cap hit: $1.35 million
The Minnesota Vikings desperately need an upgrade at cornerback. After four mediocre seasons with the Vikings, Cook is set to become a free agent. One of his biggest problems has been staying on the field. Last year he played in 12 games, making 11 starts—the most in his career. In 34 games since being drafted in the second round in 2010, Cook has yet to intercept a pass in the NFL.
At 6'2" and 200 pounds, he has the desirable size to match up with the big receivers in the NFC North, it's just that he has not been very effective.
Ben Goessling of ESPN reported that the Vikings may be interested in bringing Cook back under a one-year contract. That would give new head coach Mike Zimmer a chance to see if he can get more out of Cook than former head coach and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was able to milk out of him.
Pro Football Focus ranks Cook as the fourth-worst free-agent cornerback available. If Cook does return, it will be on a prove-it-type contract, loaded with plenty of performance incentives.
Odds: At best 30 percent—if the Vikings are able to upgrade the cornerback position, having Cook as the third, or fourth cornerback on the roster might work.
Player: Sam Shields
2013 cap hit: $2.02 million
Last season, Shields, signed by Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2010, made 14 starts for the Packers. He led the Packers with four interceptions and finished with 61 tackles. According to a tweet from Packerpedia, Shields' 17 interceptions are the fourth-most in the NFL since 2010.
The Vikings could use another top-notch cornerback, so why not go ahead and pilfer from the best team in the division? Ranking Shields the fourth-best free-agent cornerback, WalterFootball.com gives him four stars—the same rating as the three cornerbacks listed ahead of him.
No doubt Shields would provide an instant upgrade at cornerback. If Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson return from injuries that limited them for parts of last season, the Vikings would have a terrific trio of cornerbacks.
Odds: Less than 10 percent. There will be a lot of competition for Shields, and the Packers might not be keen on seeing another player going to the Vikings.
Player: Vontae Davis
2013 cap hit: $1.86 million
Both WalterFootball.com and Pro Football Focus rank Davis as the second-best cornerback available behind Brent Grimes of the Miami Dolphins. A 2009 first-round draft pick for the Dolphins, Davis is ready for a big contract.
Last season in Indianapolis, Davis started all 16 games for the Indianapolis Colts, finishing second with 12 passes defended and 50 tackles.
If general manager Rick Spielman, who is not known for making huge free-agent acquisitions, lands Davis, it would be equivalent to signing Antoine Winfield in 2004.
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No doubt Davis will have his pick, as plenty of teams will be looking to upgrade the cornerback position.
Odds: No better than 5 percent—but what an addition it would be for the Vikings.