The start of NFL free agency is March 11, and the Minnesota Vikings can take a huge step toward reshaping the roster and improve a team that only won five games last season. Former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer takes over as head coach, bringing with him a strong defensive background—something definitely needed for a squad that finished near the bottom of the NFL.
Let's take a look at the Vikings' salary cap situation as the 2014 NFL calendar year is set to begin.
2014 Cap Space
The good news is that the Vikings will have the seventh-most cap space in order to upgrade their roster. According to OvertheCap.com, the 2014 NFL salary cap will be approximately $133 million. The Vikings have approximately $31 million in cap space available.
|Teams With the Most Cap Space in 2014|
|Team||2013 Record||Cap Space (million)|
There are a few interesting points to take away from this list:
- Seven of the 10 teams are from the AFC.
- There is only one team, from both conferences, that comes out of the West.
- Only three playoff teams are on the list.
- These 10 teams averaged 6.6 wins last season.
Immediately, we can jump to the conclusion that good teams spend all their cap money in a manner that spreads it out over a period of years. There are no big swings to their payroll.
Here's hoping that the Vikings spend their available cap money wisely—but that they spend it.
Vikings Pending Free Agents
According to Spotrac.com, the Vikings have 16 unrestricted free agents, two restricted free agents and one exclusive-rights free agent. The player that impacts the salary cap the most, as well as having the biggest impact on the field, is Jared Allen.
Last season, Allen's salary cap hit was more than $17 million. It's unlikely that the Vikings will be willing to pay the emotional leader of the defense enough to keep him around. They will need to find a way to generate the 14.25 sacks he averaged the last six seasons. Allen was also extremely durable—he did not miss a start in that time.
|Minnesota Vikings: 2014 Free Agents|
|Player||Position||2013 Cap Hit||Years with Vikings||Age|
|Jared Allen||DE||$17.01 million||6||32|
|Matt Cassel||QB||$3.7 million||1||32|
|Chris Cook||CB||$1.3 million||4||27|
|Fred Evans||NT||$1.8 million||7||30|
|Josh Freeman||QB||$2.0 million||1||26|
|Toby Gerhart||RB||$1.01 million||4||27|
|Charlie Johnson||OL||$1.2 million||3||30|
|Jerome Simpson||WR||$2.1 million||2||28|
|Kevin Williams||DT||$5.0 million||11||34|
|Larry Dean (RFA)||LB||$555,000||3||26|
|Marcus Sherels (RFA)||CB/PR||$630,000||4||26|
|Matt Asiata (ERFA)||RB||$480,000||2||27|
|Spotrac and Pro Football Reference|
This list does not include linebacker Erin Henderson, who was released by the Vikings on February 7. His two DUI arrests within six weeks, the second coming on New Year's Day, prompted the move. Henderson, an undrafted rookie out of Maryland, had been with the team since 2008.
Kevin Williams, the longest-tenured Viking on the roster, is also as good as gone. Before last season, the Vikings renegotiated his contract, reducing the length to one year for a guaranteed $5 million. At 34 years old, there's very little chance that Williams re-signs with the team. The recent history for general manager Rick Spielman has been to purge aging veterans instead of paying them.
Nose tackle Fred Evans and guard Charlie Johnson, both will be 30 at the start of the season, will also most likely be seeking employment elsewhere. In seven seasons with the Vikings, Evans has a total of three sacks and averaged 14 tackles per season as the top backup at nose tackle.
Johnson came to the Vikings in 2011 and struggled at left tackle that season. That prompted the selection of Matt Kalil in 2012 NFL draft.
The unrestricted free agent with the best shot of returning to the Vikings this season is Everson Griffen.
Griffen is positioned to step in for Allen at defensive end and prove he can be an effective starter in the NFL. The last three seasons as a backup, Griffen has finished third on the team in sacks, recording 17.5 of them. The Vikings may have some competition from Seattle, and Griffen's college coach Pete Carroll—especially if they lose Michael Bennett who led the Seahawks in sacks last season.
Another free agent with a good chance of returning to the Vikings is quarterback Matt Cassel, who was their best quarterback with a 3-3 record and an 81.6 passer rating.
Working in Cassel's favor, is the fact that the free-agent market is not flooded with big-name, high-caliber quarterbacks. Josh McCown and Michael Vick—who are 35 and 34 years old, respectively—top the list of free-agent quarterbacks from WalterFootball.com.
There is a rumor that the Texans may be interested in Cassel, prompting the release of Matt Schaub.
This gives the Vikings another potential veteran quarterback to sign. The problem is it feels an awful lot like what they did in signing Cassel last season. Schaub has a base salary of $10 million in 2014, with a total cap his of $14.1 million. Last season, he was 2-6 for Houston with 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He turns 33 this summer, another point against any argument that he could be a long-term answer at quarterback.
Restricted free agent Marcus Sherels has a good chance of being re-signed as the team's primary punt returner, a role he has excelled at. With a touchdown return in each of the last two seasons, he has tied the franchise record with David Palmer and Mewelde Moore.
Free-Agent Targets for the Vikings
The Vikings need to plug holes at quarterback, linebacker, defensive line and cornerback. There's no way they will be able to do all that through the draft, so they need to look at using their salary cap space to sign some free agents.
As noted above, the Vikings may need to make some serious offers to retain Cassel, Griffen and Sherels depending on their demand.
Other players rumored to be in the Vikings' sights include former Cleveland inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, defensive end Michael Johnson from Cincinnati and cornerback Alterraun Verner from Tennessee.
Last week the Browns released Jackson, their leading tackler from last three seasons and five times since 2007. A report from Ben Goessling of ESPN indicates that as many as seven teams are interested in the 30-year-old linebacker.
As Goessling points out, Zimmer is familiar with Jackson having coached in the same division. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner may have some insight as to the caliber of Jackson's personality since he was the Browns' offensive coordinator last season. Jackson would fill a need the Vikings have at middle linebacker. Along with Chad Greenway, it would also give them two players in the top 10 for tackles in the NFL during the regular season last year.
Johnson is a player that Zimmer knows very well, having coached him since the Bengals selected him in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft.
In 2012, Johnson had a breakout year with a career-high 11.5 sacks. Last year, he only recorded 3.5 sacks, but that hasn't slowed down the rumors of his following his former defensive coordinator—much the same way Allen will wind up in Tampa where Leslie Frazier was named defensive coordinator.
Since becoming a starter in 2010, Johnson has only averaged 5.9 sacks per season. Compare that to the 10.8 sacks per season Allen had in his first four seasons with the Chiefs. The only way Johnson ends up a Viking is if the team fails to sign Griffen—there is no way both wind up on the roster in 2014.
Last season, the Vikings appeared to find a shutdown corner in rookie Xavier Rhodes. He led the team with 10 passes defended in six starts. One of his best games came in Week 13 against the Bears. He limited Brandon Marshall to four receptions for 45 yards and broke up a pass in the end zone.
Now the Vikings need to find someone who can line up on the other side of the field at cornerback—that's where Verner fits in.
Verner was a fourth-round draft pick of the Titans in 2010—the same year the Vikings selected Chris Cook in the second round. Since then, the two players have progressed in opposite directions. Verner has started 47 games for Tennessee, not missing a game the last two seasons. He has 11 interceptions, leading his team last season with five.
Cook has yet to make it through an entire season unscathed, and he is still looking for his first interception in the NFL.
Players Who Should Have Their Contracts Extended
The Vikings also need to decide if there are any players entering the last year of their contract that warrant a contract extension. Depending on the details and when the contract is extended, there could be implications on the salary cap. Fortunately, taking a look at the list, there's only one player even worthy of the conversation.
|Minnesota Vikings 2015 Free Agents|
|Chase Baker||DT||25||Active for 5 games|
|Joe Banyard||RB||25||1 reception for 11 yards|
|Chase Ford||TE||23||11 receptions for 133 yards|
|Brandon Fusco||RG||25||Started 31 games the last 2 seasons|
|Letroy Guion||NT||26||5.0 sacks in 6 seasons|
|Cullen Loeffler||LS||33||Missed only 5 games in 10 seasons|
|Christian Ponder||QB||26||14-20-1 as a starter|
|Mistral Raymond||S||26||10 starts in 3 seasons|
|Kyle Rudolph||TE||24||15 touchdowns in 3 seasons|
|Jamarca Sanford||S||28||41 starts the last 3 seasons|
|Justin Trattou||DE||25||Active for 1 game in 2013|
|Pro Football Reference|
Tight end Kyle Rudolph was limited to only eight games last season after suffering a broken foot. Unfortunately, he was unable to follow up his Pro Bowl season of 2012 when he led the Vikings with nine touchdown receptions. Despite missing half the season, Rudolph's three touchdown receptions were one short of the team lead.
Players at Risk of Becoming Salary-Cap Casualties
Depending on how big of a splash the Vikings want to make in free agency, they may need to find a little extra cap space. With a new coaching staff, the entire roster will be scrutinized as Zimmer looks to improve the roster and build a winner. Part of that evaluation will be what the Vikings are getting in return for their money.
From Spotrac.com, the following players could be at risk for losing their jobs.
|Potential Salary-Cap Casualties for the Vikings|
|Player||Position||Cap Hit||Dead Money||Savings|
|John Carlson||TE||$5.0 million||$3.0 million||$2.0 million|
|Letroy Guion||NT||$4.3 million||$300,000||$4.0 million|
|Jamarca Sanford||S||$2.7 million||$250,000||$2.2 million|
|Jerome Felton||FB||$2.33 million||$667,000||$1.67 million|
In an article posted on Forbes.com last summer, fullback Jerome Felton and tight end John Carlson were ranked first and second as the most overpaid players in 2013.
Even though Carlson restructured his contract last season, he is still at risk of being released. He played well in place of Rudolph, catching 32 passes in eight starts. This was a huge improvement over the eight receptions he had in his first season with the Vikings.
Unfortunately the Vikings may have found a suitable backup in Chase Ford, who stepped up when a concussion knocked Carlson out for three games. Ford finished with 11 receptions for 133 yards. Ford's best game came in the season finale against the Lions when he had five receptions for 43 yards. His cap hit in 2014 is only $495,000.
Even with the potential departure of free-agent defensive tackles Williams and Evans, that doesn't make Letroy Guion's spot any more secure. A fifth-round draft pick of the Vikings in 2008, Guion has started 28 games the last two seasons. In six years with the Vikings, he has recorded a total of five sacks—three of them since becoming a starter in 2012.
That just doesn't seem like a great return on their investment, and the Vikings could look to replace him with a lower cost alternative.
The Vikings are poised with a good chunk of salary cap space to really make some moves that will improve the roster—hopefully a new coaching staff will encourage the team to make the most of this opportunity.