Creating Minnesota Vikings' Free Agency Fallback Plan
Like Everson Griffen roaring out of the tunnel in the picture above, the Minnesota Vikings have hit the free-agency period running. And while a good start is the key to winning most races, you have to have a good fallback plan when things start going off script.
The Vikings have kept many of their own free agents and will hope to land some others beginning Tuesday afternoon, when NFL teams are able to begin officially signing free agents at 4 p.m. ET.
While fans across the league like to dream of their favorite team signing four or five starters in free agency, the reality is that salary-cap restrictions and market demand make that highly unlikely.
The NFL free-agency negotiating period, which opened last Saturday and runs until Tuesday, is a lot like a high school dance.
There's a lot of eyeballing, a lot of people checking each other out and rumors about who likes whom running amok. And like a lot of high school dances, things don't always turn out the way you planned.
For the Vikings, things couldn't have gotten off to a better start. General manager Rick Spielman, who's always espoused the importance of keeping your own key free agents and drafting well as the blueprint to a successful franchise, had a home run of a weekend.
Spielman re-signed the team's two most important free agents in quarterback Matt Cassel and defensive end Everson Griffen according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
Also kept in the fold with reasonable contracts were glue guys Marcus Sherels and Larry Dean, as reported by ESPN's Ben Goessling. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley was brought back after a year in Arizona to add depth and compete for a starting job at linebacker.
As expected, the Vikings parted ways with stalwart Jared Allen, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. Allen was likely looking for more money and more snaps than Minnesota is willing to give him at this point in his career.
So, as the feeding frenzy that is NFL free agency begins Tuesday afternoon, let's look at a couple of fallback plans the Vikings may have when it comes to filling the holes on their roster.
Defensive Tackle: If Not Linval Joseph, Then Who?
The Minnesota Vikings finished 31st in the NFL in total defense in 2013 and they have several positions that need upgrading. Having said that, they can't just pick a dream team of free agents. For one, it's not financially responsible. Secondly, even if you can make some magic with your cap number, it never seems to work on the field (see: Philadelphia Eagles, 2011).
It's no secret the Vikings need a big body in the middle of their defensive line.
Since the "Williams Wall" crumbled in 2010, when the Vikings didn't bring back the massive Pat Williams, Minnesota's defensive interior has consisted of Kevin Williams and a revolving door of mediocre players.
The marquee defensive tackle "big body" available in free agency is Linval Joseph, who's spent his first four seasons with the New York Giants and has gotten better every year. At 6'4", 323 pounds, Joseph would look great in Minnesota next to Sharrif Floyd. Sounds perfect, right?
The problem is that Joseph is just 25 years old and is going to command a hefty price tag. As SB Nation's Ed Valentine speculates here, the Redskins might be interested in Joseph, and everyone knows that Washington owner Daniel Snyder likes to throw money around. He can do that and tick off Giants fans at the same time with this move.
The Vikings don't need to overspend at defensive tackle. They need Sharrif Floyd to become a star at one spot and a big guy next to him who can stuff the run and occupy blockers.
Look for the Vikings to kick the tires on Miami Dolphins free agent Paul Soliai. At 6'4", 340 pounds, Soliai could give the Vikings everything they would be getting in Joseph for much less money. Pro Football Focus has Soliai ranked as their seventh-best defensive interior free agent, just four spots below Joseph.
At 30 years old, Minnesota would probably only want to give him a two- or three-year deal.
Cornerback: If Not Alterraun Verner, Then Who?
The Green Bay Packers didn't do anyone looking for a cornerback in free agency any favors this weekend when they re-signed Sam Shields to a four-year, $39 million deal.
That contract sets the bar pretty high for the elite corners, including Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib and Vontae Davis.
As reported by Marc Sessler at NFL.com, the Vikings have reached out to Verner. It's been widely speculated that Minnesota would make a play for Verner ever since it named Verner's former defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jerry Gray, as its defensive backs coach.
With 11 interceptions in his four seasons with the Titans, Verner would be a huge upgrade over Chris Cook for the Vikings and pairing him with Xavier Rhodes would give Minnesota an excellent pair of young corners.
Verner would be great, but is he worth $10 million a year? Gulp. One would have thought you could sign Verner for around $8 million a year before the Shields signing, but the market for corners is extreme. It's always been a copycat league and every team is envious of the Seattle Seahawks having two stud cornerbacks.
The good news for the Vikings is that they have options at cornerback. If they are truly considering using their first pick on a cornerback like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, it might not make a ton of sense to break the bank on a player like Verner.
A second-tier option, as suggested by MMQB's Peter King, would be Tarell Brown, a proven seven-year veteran with the San Francisco 49ers. Brown is 29 years old, has 11 career interceptions and could certainly be a solid starter while a rookie cornerback finds his footing in the league.
Safety: If Not Jairus Byrd, Then Who?
Look, every team in the league would love to sign Jairus Byrd.
Who doesn't want a ball-hawking safety who can also play against the run? Ed Reed might have combined those two traits as well as anyone who ever played the position. Earl Thomas, who ranks at the top of the safety list now, helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl last year.
Byrd is right next to Thomas on anybody's list of the best safeties against the pass right now.
He's going to have a ton of teams calling. So is T.J. Ward. Both of them rank in the top 10 available free agents according to Pro Football Focus.
In the long view, the Vikings have Harrison Smith on their roster and they certainly see him as a top-five safety in the league over the next few years. Considering that, it might be a long-shot to think they would spend the bulk of their free-agent dollars on another safety.
As ESPN1500.com's Darren Wolfson tweets, via Fansided.com, the Vikings may have some interest in a much cheaper option in safety Ryan Clark, who's spent the last eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Minnesota wouldn't be getting any younger with the 34-year-old Clark, but it would certainly get better. Clark keeps himself in phenomenal shape, and 10 of his career 15 interceptions have come in the last five seasons.
Clark would add some veteran presence to a defense that lost a lot of that by letting Jared Allen go. New Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is obviously very familiar with Clark, having faced him twice a year in Cincinnati.
Running Back: If Not Toby Gerhart, Then Who?
As much as the Vikings would love to have Toby Gerhart back, the guess has always been that the competitive side of Gerhart will win out and he'll look to sign somewhere else where he'll be given more opportunities to carry the ball.
As much as the Vikings like Gerhart, that's just not going to happen for him in Minnesota as long as Adrian Peterson is around. It'll be tough to see Gerhart go, and it won't be surprising if a year from now, he's seen as one of the steals of the 2014 free-agent class.
Assuming the Vikings are set with blocking backs with Jerome Felton, Matt Asiata and Zach Line, how nice of a complement to Peterson would Darren Sproles be?
At 30 years old, Sproles might not have the same zip in his step that he had in his days with the Chargers, but he would still be a great option out of the backfield for Minnesota, having caught over 70 passes in each of his last three seasons with the Saints.
It's certainly not a position on which the Vikings are looking to spend much money, so if the market for Sproles is high, Minnesota will pass.
Linebacker: If Not Karlos Dansby, Then Who?
When the Vikings re-signed linebacker Jasper Brinkley this past weekend, it was a sign that linebacker isn't a position that Minnesota is planning to drop a lot of free-agent money into.
We mentioned Karlos Dansby in the title of this slide to recognize how underrated he's been over the course of a stellar career. He's simply been one of the best middle linebackers in the league for years, a stud against the run, a great pass-rusher and excellent in pass coverage. Even at 32 years old, he's still the cream of the crop among the free-agent class of linebackers.
The list of really good linebackers is quite thin in this year's class, and when the Colts signed D'Qwell Jackson to a four-year, $22 million deal last weekend (as reported by CBSSports.com), the price for the better linebackers like Dansby, Darryl Smith and Brandon Spikes went up.
Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com reports that the Vikings planned a Monday meeting with former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain. McClain is 29 years old and if the Vikings did sign him, he would only be another player in the mix to try to find three starting linebackers.
As of now the Vikings only seem to have Chad Greenway penciled in as a starter at strong-side linebacker, with the other two spots up for grabs. Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Brinkley all seem to be in the mix for the spot in the middle, with Gerald Hodges a candidate for the weak-side spot.
All of this leads one to believe that linebacker is definitely a spot Minnesota will be targeting early in the draft, with first-round options being Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr on the outside and C.J. Mosley in the middle. Ryan Shazier would be a tantalizing outside option in the second round.
Wide Receiver: If Not Jerome Simpson, Then Who?
Wide receiver is a tough position to gauge in the new pass-happy NFL.
There are about 10 receivers in the league that you can look at and say, "Yeah, he'd be great anywhere." But after that it becomes a murky mess of questions when trying to evaluate most of them.
Is it the system that makes the receiver? Is it the quarterback? Are his numbers great because he has Peyton Manning or Tom Brady throwing to him? Are his numbers bad because he has Chad Henne or Christian Ponder throwing to him?
It used to be as simple as evaluating size, speed and hands when it came to picking your wideouts. Now it's a combination of those things along with football IQ, route-running savvy and the ability to mesh with your quarterback.
Two of the biggest free-agent names at wide receiver this year are Julian Edelman and Eric Decker. Edelman was fourth in the NFL in receptions last year. Only one of Hall of Famer Art Monk's 18 seasons was statistically better than Decker's 2013 season.
But would you be willing to drop No. 1 receiver money on either one of them?
What do Hakeem Nicks, Golden Tate or Kenny Britt do for you? Sure, they might have higher ceilings than Jerome Simpson, but would you be willing to offer them a lot more money to prove it?
The truth is Simpson had pretty decent numbers in 2013 for a third receiver on a team with a quarterback carousel. His 48 catches and 726 yards were both second on the team and his 15.1 yards per catch prove that his speed can stretch the field.
Simpson also drew a lot of pass interference penalties that don't show up in his statistics.
He just turned 28 years old and is familiar with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, having played in Cincinnati for three seasons.
Simpson won't cost nearly as much money as most of the projected third receivers in free agency and his athletic ability could be put to much better use with the new offensive coaching staff. It'll be a surprise if Simpson isn't back in purple in 2014.