Minnesota Vikings: Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Free Agent Signing

Bill HubbellContributor IMarch 17, 2014

Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn (41) looks to the end zone crowd as he runs his interception against the New York Jets into the end zone during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. The Panthers won 30-20. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings might not have made any splashy national news during the first week of NFL free agency, but they can certainly feel pretty good about the names they got to sign on the dotted line.

In a wild week that, according to ESPN.com's John Clayton, saw NFL teams spend $927 million in the first three days of free agency, the Vikings were a little more measured than most, but still managed to make several key signings that addressed some of the gaping holes on their depth chart.

While it might have been fun to be a Broncos or Buccaneers fan this past week and watch your team, according to spotrac.com, dole out over $60 million in guaranteed money, history shows that type of spending rarely pays dividends in the NFL.

As Clayton mentions in the article above:

Usually teams that spend more than $100 million in unrestricted free-agent contracts improve by only one win or drop back a game or two in the standings. 

Of course, that's not to say that it won't work this time around for either Denver or Tampa Bay, but Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman instead stuck to his philosophy of retaining your own important free agents, spending wisely on a few free agents and then building through the draft.

Let's take a look at the important free agents the Vikings signed last week and set some realistic expectations for each.


Quarterback Matt Cassel

You have to tip your cap to Cassel, who played the free-agency game perfectly with the Vikings over the last two years. Cassel signed for veteran backup money last year, and then opted out of the second year of the contract after proving he could still be a successful starter.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Cassel signed a two-year contract that, according to spotrac.com, will pay him $10.5 million with $5.65 million guaranteed.

It was a signing that made sense for both sides. At 31 years old, Cassel is clearly not a long-term answer for Minnesota at quarterback, but he at least gives them a competent starter on the roster heading into next season.

With Cassel on the roster, the Vikings aren't pressured into having to find an immediate starter at quarterback in the draft. 

While Cassel didn't remind anyone of Brett Favre in 2013, Minnesota was 3-3 in games he started and just 2-7-1 otherwise. 

You'd certainly think that Cassel would play better knowing it's his job to lose heading into 2014. Last season Cassel's starts were about as random as lottery numbers as the Vikings seemed to play quarterback roulette all year.

So what can the Vikings expect from the only known quarterback to start in the NFL without ever starting a game in college?

Here's a look at Cassel's best years as a starter in the league and what he might do in 2014:

Matt Cassel's Best Years and Projections for 2014
2008/Patriots327/5163,693 yards21 TDs89.4 Rat.
2009/Chiefs271/4932,924 yards16 TDs69.9 Rat.
2010 Chiefs262/4503,116 yards27 TDs93.0 Rat.
2014/Vikings290/4753,250 yards24 TDs85.0 Rat.
profootballreference.com (2008-2010 only)

This, of course, is assuming that everything goes according to plan for the Vikings and their quarterback. As every Vikings fan knows, that hasn't happened since 2009.


Defensive End Everson Griffen

A lot of defensive ends made a lot of money in free agency last week. DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers, Michael Johnson, Lamarr Houston and the Vikings own Everson Griffen.

Griffen is the anomaly in the group. Although his average of $8.5 million over five years puts him in the middle of the pay range for those listed, Griffen is the only player listed above who's never been a full-time starter in the NFL.

Surely a leap of faith by the Minnesota front office, but the Vikings perspective is that their contract to Griffen is for what they expect out of him in the next five years, where one could definitely argue that Ware and Peppers are being paid handsomely for what they've done over the last five years.

Is there a danger in paying potential rather than a proven commodity? Of course, but given the sample size Minnesota has seen from Griffen, they didn't hesitate to lock him up to big deal.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The 6'3", 273-pound Griffen has put up 17.5 sacks over the last three seasons in a backup role. His size, speed and athletic ability have always screamed potential, but with Jared Allen and Brian Robison locked in as starters, Griffen has been stuck in a backup role.

That changes heading into to 2014. While it's improbable that Griffen will step into a starting role and put up Jared Allen-like sack numbers, it is certainly time to give Griffen a starting role.

It's unfair to Griffen to be compared to a probable Hall of Fame player like Allen, and the smart money says that if Allen signs with another team, he'll probably register more sacks than Griffen next season. But over the course of the next five seasons? 

Here are Griffen's career numbers and a projection of what he might provide in 2014:

Everson Griffen's 2012-2013 Stats and Projections for 2014
TacklesSacksHurriesRun Stops
Profootballfocus.com (2012-2013 only)


Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph

The Vikings have had a hole in their defensive line since parting ways with Pat Williams after the 2009 season. For the last four seasons Minnesota has lined up with probable Hall-of-Famer Kevin Williams at one defensive tackle spot and spare parts at the other.

That hopefully ended last Tuesday when the Vikings spent big money on 25-year old nose tackle Linval Joseph. The Vikings signed the former New York Giant to a five-year, $31.5 million dollar deal that the team hopes will help return its defense to one of the best run-stopping units in the league.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 24:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys is sacked by Linval Joseph #97 of the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on November 24, 2013 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

At 6'4", 328 pounds, Joseph gives the Vikings defense the size they've lacked in the middle since Pat Williams left. Joseph has registered 109 tackles and nine sacks in four years with the Giants, but more important than his numbers will be his ability to clog things up at the center of the line of scrimmage.

Joseph has great potential as he's not just a massive body. He's shown great feet and athletic ability and is just entering the prime years of his career. 

The Vikings have to feel very good about getting Joseph for, according to Spotrac, an almost identical deal that the Atlanta Falcons doled out to Paul Soliai, who, at 30, is five years older than Joseph.

While stressing that the value of a player like Joseph isn't really measured in statistics, here's what Joseph has done the last few years for the Giants, and what might be reasonably expected from him in 2014 for the Vikings. 

Linval Joseph 2012-2013 Stats and 2014 Projected
Profootballfocus.com (2012-2013 only)


Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn

Most Vikings fans know the horrific pass defense numbers by now. 32nd in the NFL in passing touchdowns allowed. 31st in yards passing allowed. 31st in third-down conversions against.

Needless to say, Minnesota's pass defense needed fixing.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 12: Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Captain Munnerlyn #41 of the Carolina Panthers in the first quarter during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Bank of America Stadium on January 12, 2014 in Charlott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While some Viking fans hoped the team would drop big money on an elite free-agent cornerback, the team instead opted to go to the "just under elite" pile and sign Captain Munnerlyn, a 5'8", 195-pound player who draws immediate comparisons to Antoine Winfield.

Munnerlyn told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press about his playing style:

I'm tough and I'm feisty...I love getting after people, and that's what I do. ... I don't care if you're a 6-7, 6-8 lineman...I'm going to go in and try and make plays, and I'm going to hit you.

Minnesota signed Munnerlyn to a three-year contract that will pay him $11.5 million. It could turn out to be a very savvy signing by the Vikings, considering the monstrous contracts signed by fellow cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Vontae Davis, Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner.

Of the six free agent cornerbacks who signed for more money per year than Munneryln last week, none of them have averaged more tackles over the last three years than the newest Viking, according to ESPN.com.

Here's how Munnerylyn's numbers stack up against the recently departed Chris Cook:

Captain Munnerylyn vs Chris Cook
2010-2013GamesTacklesInterceptionsPasses Defended


Cornerback Derek Cox

New Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has a reputation for getting players back on the right track; for "fixing" whatever has gone wrong with their games.

Zimmer had great success in Cincinnati in resuscitating the careers of cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman. 

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 06: Cornerback Derek Cox #22 of the San Diego Chargers gets set for a game against the Oakland Raiders on October 06, 2013 at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, California.  The Raiders won 27-17.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Zimmer will have his chance in Minnesota with newly signed corner Derek Cox.

It was just last March when Cox was a highly-coveted free agent, coming off of four successful years in Jacksonville, where he'd intercepted 12 passes. The San Diego Chargers landed Cox last March, signing him to a four-year, $20 million deal. 

Cox had a miserable year in San Diego and was cut earlier this month. According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, the Chargers will end up paying Cox $10.25 million in guaranteed money for just 11 starts.

Derek Cox on the Jaguars vs Derek Cox on the Chargers
2009 (Jaguars)72 tackles4 int's11 passes def.
2010 (Jaguars)49 tackles4 int's8 passes def.
2012 (Jaguars)60 tackles4int's11 passes def.
2013 (Chargers)38 tackles1 int7 passes def.

For the Vikings, signing Cox to a one-year deal for just $730,000 was a no-brainer. His 13 career interceptions are the most on the Vikings roster, and he's still just 27-years old. 

Cox won't be handed a roster spot with the Vikings, but will compete with Josh Robinson, Shaun Prater, Robert Steeples and any rookie corners Minnesota brings in.

The hope is that Zimmer can work his magic once again and get Cox back to playing at the high level he was in Jacksonville.


Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson

It might seem a little odd that the same team can sign the same player to a "prove it" contract for the third year in a row, but that's exactly the case with the Vikings and Simpson.

It's been a weird couple of years in Minnesota, especially with the team's passing game.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 29:  Jerome Simpson #81 of the Minnesota Vikings gets tackled by Jonte Green #36 of the Detroit Lions on December 29, 2013 at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Be
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The reasons for signing Simpson to another one-year contract are the same as they were two years ago. He's a phenomenal athlete with great speed who can put a defense back on its heels.

Simpson's numbers improved dramatically during his second season with the team, catching 48 passes for 726 yards and a touchdown. What doesn't show up on the stat sheet is the numerous pass-interference calls Simpson drew from defenders. These extended drives.

According to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, Simpson lost his starting job to rookie Cordarrelle Patterson after the veteran was arrested for drunk driving on Nov. 9. 

Though Simpson might not get as many snaps with the emergence of Patterson and third-year man Jarius Wright, he adds depth to the Vikings receiving corps and gives them a home run threat.

With more stability at the quarterback position, one would hope that Simpson could at least replicate his numbers from 2014.

Overall, the Vikings have stuck to Spielman's plan of keeping their own free agents (they've re-signed Marcus Sherels, Charlie Johnson, Larry Dean, Fred Evans, Joe Berger, Matt Asiata) and bringing in more depth (the above players and linebacker Jasper Brinkley).

They've given themselves flexibility as they head towards the draft. There are no glaring holes on the roster at this point that would force Minnesota to draft a certain way.

They are now free to do whatever they want to when it comes to the draft. Take a top three quarterback if one falls to them. Draft for defense if there isn't a quarterback they want at eight. They can trade down and get more picks if there is a market for the eighth pick.

All in all, the Vikings have had a solid free-agency period, which will help them have a successful draft.