On any given year, all teams have holes to fill, but it is no secret that the Vikings have enough to sink the Titanic. For several years there has been talk that all they needed was a QB who could turn the Vikes into a playoff power. And though 2009 may have justified this outlook, now there can be no mistake about that. In 2011, Minnesota has a lot more needs than a plug-and-play quarterback.
When the lockout began on March 12, the Vikings front office knew they were in for an interesting set of challenges. Without a CBA in place, the rules regarding free agency, salary caps and trades all became unknown. This signaled to management that the Vikings needed to draft for what was needed now not what they might need down the road. But without a CBA, there would be no possibility of getting new recruits to training camp or signing undrafted free agents, making it especially difficult to fill their needs through the draft.
However, it isn’t impossible to speculate which free agents Minnesota might pursue when (and if) the lockout ends. It is unlikely that much will change for veteran players when a new CBA is reached, but the game-changer will be the salary cap amount.
The salary cap in 2009 was $128 million, and up until that point had been increasing by $9 million a year. If the increase remains steady, the salary cap in 2011 will likely be somewhere between $135-$140 million.
That should leave the Vikings with around $30 million in cap space. However, with the Vikings likely to slap the franchise and transition tags on Greenway and Rice, respectively, Greenway will likely be allotted $9-$10 million of that space, and Rice would be guaranteed $8.65 million under current rules. This still leaves the Vikings with somewhere around $12 million, which is plenty to work with.
Based on these assumptions, here are some possibilities to help fill the gaps and right the sinking ship.
Some of the readers (hopefully not many) may consider the position of quarterback already “filled” by Ponder. Whether you like him or not, there can be little doubt that Ponder is not yet NFL-ready. I could cite a variety of reasons from his physique to his inexperience to his mental preparedness. There is a very real possibility that playing him too early will set back his progress.
A good solution would be to pick up a veteran for a 3- or 4-year contract, giving Ponder time to grow into his role. There have been many reports suggesting the Vikings sign McNabb, which may not be quite as awful as it sounds. He has shown in the past that he is able to win games, and often with much fewer offensive weapons than the Vikings will be able to provide in 2011. He also has experience coaching a young QB in Kevin Kolb. However, McNabb is set to earn up to $70 million on the remainder of his 5-year contract, which may be a bigger check than Zygi Wilf wants to write.
But if McNabb gets cut, expect him to end up in Minnesota.
Other possibilities include Matt Hasselbeck, if by a fit of insanity the Seahawks decline to re-sign him, or Marc Bulger, a veteran with experience mentoring multiple QBs. Bulger is still effective enough to earn a starting job, and he’s shown that he is willing to sign one-year contracts.
There is no need to specify a specific position here because the Vikings need help everywhere along the line. Along with certain parts of the O-line being sub-standard (mostly Sullivan), the line is just old. Hutchinson is 34 and McKinnie is 32. The Vikings have stressed their need to make the O-line younger, and they will likely do this, at least in part, through free agency.
Offensive lines are best built through drafts. When you look into just how many starting offensive linemen are below age 27, you begin to realize that, unlike most positions, offensive linemen seem to enter the league NFL ready. By signing an O-line during free agency a team can end up paying twice as much for the same productivity. However, there’s a reason why the Vikings may feel the need to sign one or more offensive linemen. That reason is Christian Ponder.
The Vikings management has fallen in love with Ponder, with Frazier going so far as to say, “I’d like for him to be ready to go when we play San Diego [on Sept. 11]. That would be the ideal situation -- we’ve got our Matt Ryan, we’ve got our [Joe] Flacco, we’ve got our [Mark] Sanchez right here.”
So from all indications, Ponder may be the first in purple-and-gold to snap a ball this coming season. And it is only reasonable to imagine that while taking such a crazy risk, the front office will want some insurance.
There are several names floating around in free agency right now. Most of them are far too old to really interest the Vikings, but some of the more promising young names include Tyson Clabo and Doug Free at OT, and Carl Nicks at guard.
If Minnesota decides that in 2011 Ponder is their man, expect a boost of some kind to the offensive line.
Whether or not Pat Williams leaves this year, DT is a serious need. Of the five defensive tackles on the Vikings roster, only two of them are younger than 30. It is unlikely that Minnesota will let Williams go without tendering some kind of offer, but whether he stays or goes is of little consequence. The Vikings are thinking longer term than this coming season, and it is likely that signing Williams for another year will do nothing but decrease the value of their picks next year.
Haloti Ngata is arguably the biggest name on the DT free agency list, but it may be difficult for the Ravens defensive star to adapt back to the Vikings 4-3 scheme. Richard Seymour is also a big name, but he is 31, which is likely a little too old to interest the Vikings. Younger options include Barry Cofield and Brandon Mebane.
There are reports that the new CBA could include a new clause to allow players who have accrued four or more seasons to become unrestricted free agents if they don’t already have a contract in place. This is important because Ray Edwards has just completed his fifth season, and with this change could become an unrestricted free agent next season. This would shoot Edwards to the top of a very slim list of free agent DEs.
It is difficult to replace a player of Edward’s ability, but Shaun Ellis could be an excellent 1-2 year replacement. Jason Babin is also a veteran possibility that could sign a short-term contract. Other younger options include Cullen Jenkins and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Perhaps the most interesting position for Minnesota this season, next to quarterback, is wide receiver. If the Vikings do sign Rice, this becomes much less of a need, but let’s explore other options.
If an offer to Rice is too rich, or if he makes it clear he’d rather not return to Minnesota, the Vikings would be left with a receiving core of Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian, Greg Lewis and Greg Camarillo. That’s not exactly an elite core. And with the lack of depth, it may be best to sign two receivers with the money that would otherwise be allocated to Rice’s contract.
The most important need would be signing a deep threat. Berrian can go deep, but he’s somewhat of a one-trick pony. Harvin could play this role, but he is most effective out of the slot so Minnesota may be hesitant to move him over. It would be best if the Vikings could find a more versatile receiver who can play wide-out with Berrian.
A great option here is Braylon Edwards, making a solid No. 2. With the number of Jets free agents this season, he is likely to walk, and he would be a great young option with a less expensive contract.
Other possibilities include Santana Moss, who despite his age (32), had 93 receptions for 1115 yards last season in the Redskins' offense, and James Jones who had 679 yards on 50 receptions during the Packers' championship season last year and was great getting yards after catches.
Santonio Holmes is also of interest. The very talented and multifaceted receiver would be a great addition to Minnesota, especially as a release valve if Ponder is at the helm. In addition, the Vikings have a history of dealing successfully with players who have some personal problems.
Second to quarterback, this has been the Vikings largest need over the last half decade. Cornerback, strong safety and free safety—Minnesota could use an upgrade at all of them. Most Vikings CBs fall under one of two categories: injury prone or inconsistent. Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook fall under injury prone, Asher Allen under inconsistent. Safety has been worse, with none of the recent draft additions being able to produce solid, consistent performance.
Antonio Cromartie is a free agent this year, and will likely be the most sought after CB on the market. He would help solidify Minnesota’s pass defense which looked substandard on several occasions last season. A cheaper option at the safety position would be Dawan Landry, who is one of the better tacklers in the league. With the Vikings at 25th in missed tackles last season, Landry could be a force in the backfield.
Minnesota, like all teams, has many needs and few resources. Where the Vikings allocate those resources in the coming months could set them back a decade or set them on a Super Bowl course. How Frazier and the front office manage this coming season and free agency will set the tone for many years to come.