Minnesota Vikings: Ranking the 2014 Impact of Free-Agent Signings So Far

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IMarch 23, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Ranking the 2014 Impact of Free-Agent Signings So Far

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    The Minnesota Vikings have had an excellent start to free agency in 2014, choosing to fill several holes on the depth chart for reasonable amounts of money.

    Rather than dropping a huge amount of money to make a splashy signing at one position, Minnesota has instead spent wisely and given themselves flexibility heading toward the draft.

    Think of it as spackling some holes in the wall rather than adding a hot tub in the backyard.

    Following the 2013 season, the Vikings biggest needs were on pass defense, in the middle of the defensive line and, obviously, at quarterback.

    Those needs were addressed as efficiently as possible. No gargantuan contracts that would strap the team down the line were handed out. The team got younger, and hopefully better, at several positions of concern.

    In the process, the team has probably said goodbye to three of its more popular players in recent years in Toby Gerhart, Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.

    While it made no sense on either side to bring back Gerhart or Allen for both financial and competitive reasons, the team's seeming non-interest in bringing back Williams has raised some eyebrows.

    It's another of the constant reminders that the NFL is a business. Williams wouldn't start in 2014, so the team made the decision to sign backups Fred Evans and Tom Johnson for probably less than half of the price it would have cost them to bring Williams back.

    On paper, it makes sense not to pay a backup in the $3 million to $4 million range. One hopes that this move doesn't start to smell like the ill-fated decision not to re-sign Antoine Winfield last summer.

    While we won't know how any of Minnesota's free-agency moves turn out until games start being played next fall, here we rank the probable impact of the Vikings' signings over the last month.

1. Quarterback Matt Cassel

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    As you've read here, and anywhere else that talks NFL football, the quarterback position is the most important on any team—by a long shot.

    In today's NFL, where the rules have made it a passer's league, you can certainly be a good team without a great quarterback. You can make the playoffs without a great quarterback. But can you be a legitimate contender without at least a very good quarterback? 

    These are all questions to ponder as the Vikings head toward the 2014 season. And while the jury is certainly out on how high the ceiling is for a team with Matt Cassel as its starting quarterback, it has to be higher than one with Christian Ponder at the helm.

    With that in mind, the Vikings signed Cassel to a two-year deal worth $10 million. Cassel will be 32 years old when the 2014 season begins, so he's not a long-term answer at quarterback. However, with Cassel on board, it lessens the immediacy in which Minnesota has to find its next franchise quarterback.

    The Vikings were 3-3 in games Cassel started last season and 2-7-1 with somebody else. You'd have to believe Cassel will play more comfortably knowing that he's the starter and not feeling like he's trying out every time he's on the field.

    History shows that missing on a quarterback drafted in the first round sets a franchise back three or four years. You not only have poor quarterback play, but you've more than likely missed out on an impact starter at another position.

    2014 will be the fourth season since the Vikings whiffed on their first-round quarterback choice. No player will have more of an impact on that season than Matt Cassel.

    (The entire tenor of this slide is subject to change if the Vikings select a quarterback in the first round of the 2014 draft. While no quarterback in the draft may be more ready to start in 2014 than Cassel, any taken in the first round would certainly compete with Cassel for the starting job in training camp.

    The thought here is that three quarterbacks will be taken by the time the Vikings choose at No. 8. The other thought is that the Vikings will be playing chicken with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders in order to position themselves to take Derek Carr early in the second round.)

2. Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph

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    There is no doubt that offensive and defensive schemes have gotten more complicated over the last decade. This is not only in the NFL but also at all levels of football.

    Spring passing camps for junior-high kids have beget college players more capable of running sophisticated schemes on both sides of the ball. Peyton Manning probably has more plays in his head than every NFL team from the 1960s combined.

    And as complicated as offenses have gotten at all levels, and particularly in the NFL, what can be lost in all of the new-fangled statistics and advanced metrics is that successful football teams control the line of scrimmage.

    Boxer Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get hit."

    The Minnesota Vikings defense has been soft in the middle ever since Pat Williams called it a career after the 2010 season. They haven't done enough hitting. They've disrupted far too few plans.

    That should all change in 2014 with the free-agent signing of massive defensive tackle Linval Joseph. At 6'4", 323 pounds, the 25-year old Joseph gives Minnesota an active, physical presence in the middle of their defensive line.

    While Joseph probably won't pile up the sexy sack or tackle numbers of his fellow defensive linemen, he might be the most important player of the group in 2014. Joseph's ability to disrupt offenses at the point of attack will make everyone else's job on defense easier.

    Joseph is everything you'd want from a nose or A-gap defender. He's big enough to take on multiple blockers, he's a great run-stuffer and he's very effective on the pass rush.

    Great football teams control the line of scrimmage. The Vikings will have a lot more control in 2014 with Joseph in the middle of things.

3. Defensive End Everson Griffen

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    The Minnesota Vikings probably won't be as good at right defensive end as they've been over the last six years.

    Minnesota cut ties with probable Hall of Famer Jared Allen, who'd averaged over 14 sacks a season at that position and is replacing him with Everson Griffen, who they've had high hopes for for years.

    The Vikings couldn't have asked for more out of Allen in his six years with the club, both in his production and in the way he carried himself on and off the field. But football players will all get older, and the time had come for Minnesota to give a starting job to Griffen.

    Giving a player who's never been a regular starter a five-year contract for $42.5 million, seemed like a lot, especially when established stars at the same position were getting similar contracts. But the Vikings had seen enough of Griffen, who's recorded 17.5 sacks over the last three years in a backup role, that they didn't hesitate to lock him up.

    At 6'3", 273 pounds with athletic ability to spare, Griffen has nearly every attribute you'd look for in a dominant defensive end. While Griffen might not get to the quarterback as much as the prolific Allen did, his speed and quickness might make him an upgrade against the run.

    While Allen's job with the Vikings was pretty simple, "go get the quarterback," Minnesota has more options with Griffen, who can rush the passer, stop the run and even drop into coverage when asked to.

    For Everson Griffen it's time to turn all that potential into productivity.

4. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn

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    On paper, Chris Cook, the Vikings' first pick in the 2010 draft, seemed like an ideal NFL cornerback. Too bad the game isn't played on paper.

    Four years into his NFL career and Cook is still looking for his first interception. He won't get it in Minnesota.

    The Vikings made their second-biggest move in free agency by signing cornerback Captain Munnerlyn who, on paper, doesn't look big enough to be in the league. At just 5'8", 195 pounds, one would think Munnerlyn would have a hard time matching up with NFL wide receivers.

    The opposite is true, however, as Munnerlyn is a very solid cover corner and exceptional against the run. Munnerlyn has a similar build and, more importantly, plays a very similar game as that of former Vikings standout Antoine Winfield.

    Like Winfield, Munnerlyn is a terror when he slips into the slot in nickel packages, which NFL defenses are in nowadays more often than not.

    Munnerlyn has improved his tackle numbers every season in the league, his 74 tackles in 2013 included 3.5 sacks. His career seven interceptions include an astonishing five returned for touchdowns.

    Munnerlyn adds a toughness and an edge to a Vikings defense that was lacking both in 2013. His high football IQ will make everyone on that side of the ball better.

5. Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson

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    Not to pile on to Christian Ponder, who couldn't be a better guy, but it's pretty hard to gauge the talent of receivers who have been playing with him over the last three seasons.

    The truth is, a wide receiver's production in the NFL is directly tied to the success of his quarterback. Ponder didn't have much success in his three years at the helm for Minnesota.

    None of this is to say that Jerome Simpson will be markedly better with a different quarterback. At 28 years old, Simpson is what he is—a gifted athlete who can make spectacular plays, but way too inconsistent to be a dependable starter in the NFL.

    With the emergence of uber-talented Cordarrelle Patterson, Simpson won't be a starter in 2014, and his skill set is probably much better served as a third or fourth receiver anyway.

    Simpson caught 48 passes for a career-high 726 yards in 2013. His speed gives the Vikings a vertical threat, and Simpson had a knack for extending drives by drawing pass-interference penalties in 2013.

    The Vikings locked Simpson up to add depth at receiver, and he came cheap, at just $1 million for the 2014 season. While Simpson might face a suspension from the league for a DWI arrest last November, the low cost probably kept him in Minnesota. 

    The Vikings can probably expect similar production in 2014 from Simpson, but hope that he can reach the end zone more than just once.

6. Punt Returner Marcus Sherels

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    Marcus Sherels is an anomaly in the NFL.

    Undersized and undrafted after an unspectacular career at the University of Minnesota, Sherels spent a year on the practice squad before barely making the roster in 2011.

    Sherels took over the punt-return duties that year, and while he never got you out of your seat, he never did anything stupid either, which is more than you can say for a lot of return men in the NFL.

    Sherels barely made the squad again entering the 2012 season and once again was a dependable, if non-spectacular, punt-return man. He improved his return average from 8.4 yards per return in 2011, to 9.0 in 2012.

    Sherels saw more action in the secondary due to a rash of injuries in 2012, but he looked completely overwhelmed in coverage.

    Heading into the 2013 season, Sherels looked to be one of several players on the roster bubble coming out of training camp, but he really broke through during the regular season. His 15.2 yards per punt return average was third in the NFL, and he did an adequate job in pass coverage.

    Sherels will more than likely be fighting for his football life come training camp in 2014, but at this point it would be silly to bet against him. Sherels has turned himself into an excellent punt returner and made himself an important piece of the Vikings' excellent special teams.

7. Defensive End Corey Wootton

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    The Vikings added depth at defensive end by signing former Chicago Bear Corey Wootton to a one-year deal that, according to reports, is worth $1.5 million. It's a "prove it" deal for Wootton, who's battled injuries during his four-year career in Chicago.

    When healthy, Wootton has been a more-than-adequate player, racking up 10 sacks over the last two seasons for the Bears.

    Wootton will provide depth at defensive end for the Vikings, playing behind starters Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. Wootton offers versatility as well; the 6'6", 270-pounder has taken plenty of snaps at tackle when asked to do so.

    Just 26 years old, if Wootton can stay healthy and fulfill some of his vast potential, this could be a steal of a signing for the Vikings.

8. Cornerback Derek Cox

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    New Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has developed a reputation as a guy who can "fix" football players. As the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, two of Zimmer's top reclamation projects were cornerbacks Adam "Pac Man" Jones and Terence Newman.

    Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray will have their opportunity in Minnesota to get cornerback Derek Cox's career back on track.

    The Vikings signed Cox on March 13, the same day they added Captain Munnerlyn to the roster. As reported by Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk, Cox signed with the Vikings a year to the day from when he'd signed a huge deal with the San Diego Chargers.

    Cox is hoping to resuscitate a career that saw him post three excellent years in Jacksonville, collecting 12 interceptions and 30 passes defended, before hitting the skids last year in San Diego after signing his big free-agent contract.

    Cox never lived up to his big contract with the Chargers and was benched several different times last season. His pass-coverage abilities seemed to disappear with his new team.

    The Vikings were quick to scoop up Cox in free agency for the bargain-basement price of just $730,000.

    Still just 27 years old, Cox's 12 career picks are the most on the Vikings' current roster, and if he can regain the form he had in Jacksonville, he can certainly contribute to the Vikings secondary.

    As Nathan Jahnke noted in this 2012 write-up on Cox for Pro Football Focus, Cox struggled in coverage during his rookie season, but he improved dramatically over the next two seasons.

    Cox obviously took a huge step backward last year in San Diego, but he's a guy who's proved he can be a good player in the NFL.  

    Minnesota has absolutely nothing to lose in bringing Cox into camp to see if he can add depth to a secondary that desperately needs it.

9. Defensive Tackle Tom Johnson

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    Unfortunately for fans of Kevin Williams, the Vikings' signing of defensive tackle Tom Johnson last week, as reported by Tom Pelissero of USA Todaymight be a sign that Williams' days in Minnesota are over.

    Nobody who watches football would argue that either Johnson or Fred Evans are anywhere near as good as Williams, but they certainly are cheaper, as the Vikings, according to Spotrac, signed the two of them for roughly $1.8 million for next season.

    The business minds at Winter Park have obviously decided it makes much more financial sense to sign those two to backup starters Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd, rather than bring back Williams, who would probably cost them between $3-4 million for next season.

    In Johnson the Vikings are getting a 6'3", 288-pound tackle who's certainly paid his football dues, spending time in NFL Europe, Arena Football and the CFL before catching on with the New Orleans Saints.

    Johnson told the The Mississippi Press that the Vikings 4-3 scheme is a much better fit for him than the Saints' 3-4 alignment. 

    At 29 years old, Johnson pairs with Evans to give the Vikings two veteran backups in the middle of their defensive line, and they'll battle in training camp with youngsters Chase Baker and Kheeston Randall.