Resigned to the fact that his team of the last six years has all but moved on, and with his window of productivity shrinking every season, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen should enter unrestricted free agency this spring with a somewhat simple goal.
The mission doesn't need to center around money—of which Allen has made plenty—or contract length, even if the 31-year-old feels he has "years left" in him, as he told Tom Pelissero of USA Today back in November.
No, Allen's objective in free agency should instead be to find the very best fit for not only what remains of his skill set, but also the chance to win a title.
While he used the word "contender" when discussing his future with Pelissero, Allen also said he doesn't want to be handed a first-ever championship in a marginalized role.
"I don't want to be chasing the ring," Allen said, seemingly content with the idea that the Vikings wouldn't be re-signing him this offseason. "I want to earn the ring."
In just one sentence, Allen laid out his likely vision for free agency: Find a team that both needs his services as a 4-3 defensive end and has a legitimate shot at making a run at a Lombardi Trophy in coming years.
Many veterans of the NFL share this goal when it comes to free agency, but Allen remains an especially special case.
Source: Pro Football Reference
He is a player with seven straight seasons of 10 or more sacks, including 23.5 since 2012 and an NFL-high 101.0 since 2007. He is also respected league-wide, with five Pro Bowls, four All-Pro selections and two sack titles. Just three short years ago, he challenged the all-time sack record but finished with 22.0, a new Vikings franchise record.
Yet for all the personal accolades, Allen has played in just five career playoff games, winning only once. His deepest run into the postseason came in 2009-10, when the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game—only to be beaten by the New Orleans Saints in overtime.
Over 10 NFL seasons, Allen has not played in a Super Bowl. In fact, his teams haven't even been relevant in recent seasons.
The Vikings have won just 24 games since the '09 season, and 2013 marked the third time in four years that Minnesota has lost 10 or more games in one season. The Vikings are now starting over with a new coaching staff in 2014.
The losing can take a toll on an aging star. As stated in the table below, Allen has as many playoff berths as 10-loss seasons:
|Career W-L in MIN||46-49-1|
|Career W-L in KC||30-34|
Source: Pro Football Reference
Allen is still a respected and productive veteran, but he's also as hungry for a ring as any soon-to-be 32-year-old player left in the NFL. That combination alone can be a gold mine for a not-far-off Super Bowl contender.
Yet not everyone is convinced Allen is still a can't miss player.
The Vikings decided to give 30-year-old Brian Robison a contract extension this past season, despite knowing full well that both Allen and Everson Griffen would be joining Robison as a free agent in 2014. His four-year deal will pay him $28 million, with $13 million guaranteed.
The October deal was the strongest indication yet that the Vikings were ready to end a mutually beneficial six-year relationship with Allen. But general manager Rick Speilman also made a telling statement when he elected to enter 2013 with Allen's cap number at over $17 million, instead of restructuring his deal, lowering the hit and committing more years.
Now a month out from free agency, Allen is being viewed by some as one of the market's more overvalued players.
Former NFL scout and current ESPN analyst Louis Riddick recently called Allen his most overrated player in the upcoming free-agent pool. His opinion of Allen's overall play was harsh but relevant:
With Jared, I see a player with diminishing get-off quickness, an inability to win on the edge against quality competition without benefiting from the QB holding the ball too long, marginal stamina as an every-down end and an average point-of-attack run defender that does not play with a consistent level of competitiveness. I would approach signing a player like this with extreme caution, as "the wall" could be approaching faster than the stats say it is.
A review of Allen's 2013 season provides some evidence for why so many are down on Allen ahead of free agency.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Allen finished last season as the NFL's 34th ranked 4-3 defensive end. His overall grade of minus-4.0 was his worst over a single season since PFF began grading players in 2008, and over 30 full points off his best season (plus-26.9, 2011).
Allen still finished with 65 total pressures, which finished ninth at his position. However, he needed 649 total pass-rushing snaps to accumulate that number, which reduced his overall productivity. For comparison, consider that Seattle's Michael Bennett had 65 pressures on just 379 pass-rushing snaps. Robert Quinn, the league's most efficient pass-rushing defensive end, tallied 91 over 477.
|Allen||4-3 DE Rank|
|Pass Rush Productivity||8.0||28th|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Allen's season was one of peaks and valleys.
He certainly had strong outings, such as in Week 1, when he registered two quarterbacks hits, two hurries and two batted passes. There were three weeks with two or more sacks—against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit—plus games against Dallas (nine hurries) and Green Bay (seven pressures, including three quarterback hits) when he was statistically disruptive.
Allen's late stretch of 6.5 sacks in five games saved his streak of double-digit sack seasons.
But the duds Allen provided were just as common as the old flashes of dominance. He had negative pass-rushing grades in nine of 16 games, including big knocks against Cleveland, Baltimore and Carolina. By Week 12, Allen had just five total sacks and four games with one or fewer solo tackles.
Allen's impact against the run also suffered, as he missed eight tackles and provided just 32 stops, which PFF defines as a tackle that constitutes an offensive failure. In 2012, he finished with four misses and 46 stops.
Without its top pass-rusher giving efficient results against the pass or a steady contribution versus the run, the Vikings defense all but melted away.
The talent-deficient unit finished dead last in points (30.0/game) and passing touchdowns (37), and 31st in the NFL in total yards (6,362) and passing yards (4,595). The defense also forced the fifth-fewest turnovers (27) while giving up the third-most first downs (368).
Allen was partly to blame, but the Vikings arguably featured the worst collection of cornerbacks and safeties in the NFL and only an average set of starting linebackers. Even a superlative season from Allen couldn't have saved Minnesota from struggling mightily on defense.
That reality plays into the idea that Allen—as his age 32 season approaches—now needs to play on a defense where the talent around him is superb.
He'll also need to be structured into a 4-3 defense, as Allen has never played in a three-man front. He's spent all 10 years working as a left or right defensive end, and more so of the latter. Last season, Allen played all his pass-rushing snaps at right end.
Allen's best fits appear to be in Denver, Seattle, New England and Cincinnati. All four play a similar 4-3 defense (or at least some hybrid of a four-man front) and figure to be serious contenders in 2014.
The Broncos need more pass rush, and Von Miller is coming off an ACL injury. Seattle has grown fond of stockpiling pass-rushers, many of whom have thrived. New England is always a potential landing spot for a veteran star looking to play for something bigger. And Cincinnati could lose defensive end Michael Johnson to a big spender, leaving a player like Allen as a replacement option.
Other potential landing spots include Atlanta (one year removed from a trip to the NFC title game), Tampa Bay (connection with Leslie Frazier, who is now the Buccaneers defensive coordinator) and Chicago (in need of defensive ends). While not playoff teams last season, it wouldn't be completely unreasonable to project any of the three teams back into the postseason in 2014.
Where is Jared Allen's ideal landing spot this offseason?
The Vikings might also end up as an option, especially given how important new head coach Mike Zimmer values bringing pressure on the quarterback.
That said, Minnesota isn't going to pay anything near the $17 million cap hit Allen collected last season. And the Vikings defense figures to be a unit in transition next season, as Zimmer makes changes and identifies who on the roster fits and who doesn't.
In the long term, Griffen—a younger and more versatile pass-rusher—would appear to be much more likely to return to Minnesota in 2014.
That might sit fine with Allen, who will be better off finding the best fit for him—in terms of both need and contender status—within a market that might not value him as high as he'd like anyway.
Just last offseason, defensive ends expected to cash in with big deals came up short.
Cliff Avril, an emerging then 26-year-old, settled for a two-year, $13 million deal in Seattle. Twenty-eight year-old Michael Bennett did the same, signing for one year and $5 million with the Seahawks.
Veterans Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney, two players closer to Allen's current situation, signed two-year deals worth $8.5 and $8.75 million, respectively.
Like Avril and Bennett did in Seattle, and what Umenyiora thought he was accomplishing in Atlanta, Allen should follow the wins and forget the money this offseason.
He's made roughly $77 million over three career contracts. He's second on the the active career sack list, trailing only John Abraham. He's been to Pro Bowls and named to All-Pro teams.
Now is the time for Allen to use his remaining productive years on a franchise that will be competing for Super Bowls. Come March, he'll likely have a chance to make that connection a reality.
Salary-cap and contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com.