The Definitive Blueprint to the Minnesota Vikings' Perfect Offseason
The Minnesota Vikings' offseason was pushed back another week behind 199 rushing yards from Adrian Peterson and three touchdown passes from Christian Ponder. That means the work on improving the team is delayed. Head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman will have to wait until the team is eliminated from the playoffs to start wheeling and dealing.
That doesn't mean we cannot start speculating at the best offseason moves that will build on the best single-season turnaround in franchise history.
With 16 free agents to consider re-signing and a draft pick somewhere between 21 to 24, the Vikings need another offseason like last year's to help push the Vikings to one of the best teams in the NFL.
Here's one look at how the pieces need to fall to do just that.
Keep the Momentum Going and Re-Sign the Right Free Agents
As stated on the opening slide, the Minnesota Vikings have 16, 2013 free agents on the current roster. Included among these are nine players who started at least seven games or, in the case of Marcus Sherels, made significant contributions on special teams.
Two of the three Vikings' starting linebackers—Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson—are due new contracts. Other key members on the defense who become free agents include defensive tackle Kevin Williams, cornerback A.J. Jefferson and safety Jamarca Sanford.
On offense, the Vikings will need to determine what to do with fullback Jerome Felton who made the Pro Bowl along with wide receiver Jerome Simpson and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
The seven remaining Vikings who will be free agents include wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, running back Matt Asiata, offensive linemen Joe Berger and Geoff Schwartz, backup linebackers Tyrone McKenzie and Marvin Mitchell and safety Andrew Sendejo.
The Vikings need to lock up Kevin Williams for the rest of his career. He is a six-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-eam All-Pro. Turning 33 next August, he will be the same age that Pat Williams joined the Vikings back when the two played next to each other for six seasons.
The Vikings also need to lock up linebackers Brinkley and Henderson. The Vikings' NFL defensive ranking in points and yards allowed improved from 31st and 21st in the NFL in 2011, to 14th and 16th in 2012. The linebacker play led by Chad Greenway had a lot to do with that.
The Vikings might consider letting Loadholt walk. The four-year veteran led the Vikings in penalties with 11—only two less than Stephen Gilmore from Buffalo and Doug Free from Dallas. If that happens, the Vikings need to have a backup plan to replace him.
Upgrade the Wide Receiver Position
The Vikings desperately need to upgrade their receiving corp. Percy Harvin led the Vikings with 62 catches and 677 receiving yards. The downside of these stats is that he was limited to only nine games this season.
The next leading wide receiver on the roster is Michael Jenkins, who finished the season with 40 catches for 449 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games.
Dwayne Bowe led the 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs with 59 catches for 801 yards. The Chiefs' first-round draft choice from 2007 led the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions in 2010. He would automatically become the Vikings' top split end. The problem is how much it might take to sign him—this past season he was paid $9.5 million.
The other problem is Bowe doesn't fit the type of free agent that general manager Rick Spielman has signed over the past couple of seasons.
A free agent who does fit Spielman's style would be Austin Collie from the Colts. The Colts' fourth-round draft pick from 2009, Collie had caught at least 54 passes in this first three seasons. A concussion suffered in the preseason and a ruptured patellar tendon limited him to one game this season.
Another free agent who would upgrade the receiving corp includes Green Bay's Greg Jennings, who caught 36 passes and four touchdowns in eight games this season. That's more passes than Jerome Simpson caught this season for the Vikings in 12 games.
Find a Replacement for Antoine Winfield
Don't misunderstand the title of this slide—I'm not suggesting that the Vikings get rid of Antoine Winfield, but they need someone who can step in and fill his shoes as his playing time decreases.
Winfield has had a great career. He currently leads the Vikings with three interceptions, along with Harrison Smith. But at the age of 35, his best days are behind him. Winfield came to the Vikings as a free agent after playing five seasons in Buffalo.
There is some promise with younger cornerbacks Josh Robinson (21), A.J. Jefferson (24) and Chris Cook (25), but the Vikings would be wise to lure another cornerback of Winfield's ability to the team. Next season will only be Cook and Jefferson's fourth year in the NFL and only the second year for Robinson.
A couple of pretty good candidates include Mike Jenkins of the Cowboys and Aqib Talib of the Patriots.
Jenkins, the Cowboys first-round draft pick in 2008, was a three-year starter for the Cowboys from 2009 to 2011. With Dallas selecting Morris Claiborne this year, Jenkins lost his starting job. In 2009 he made the Pro Bowl, when he led the Cowboys with five interceptions. In this last year of his rookie contract, he made $1.05 million.
Talib, another first-round draft pick in 2008, played three seasons with Tampa Bay. On November 1 of this year, the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick in 2013 for him. In five seasons, he has 19 interceptions and has returned four of them for touchdowns. This last year of his contract pays him $1.85 million.
Rick Spielman Works His Draft Magic Again
Over the last two drafts, the Minnesota Vikings have drafted 20 players. From each of those drafts, the team has eight players on the active roster. With tackle DeMarcus Love (sixth-round in 2011) and Greg Childs (fourth-round in 2012) on the injured reserve, that means the Vikings failed to keep only two draft picks.
In 2012, general manager Rick Spielman made several trades that allowed him to draft left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith in the first round.
Kalil has helped to anchor the Vikings offensive line that allowed only 32 sacks this season after giving up 49 last year.
Smith has helped a defensive secondary that allowed the most touchdown passes in 2011 with 34. This year, they allowed 28. He led the Vikings with three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns.
In 2013, the Vikings will have at least eight draft picks—gaining a fourth-round pick from the Lions and the sixth-round pick from the Titans. They acquired A.J. Jefferson from the Cardinals for an undisclosed draft pick.
Expect Spielman to work his magic to either move the Vikings up on the draft or give them an extra pick or two.
Then with wide receiver and cornerback improved through free agency, additional strategic moves would be to improve the team with a defensive tackle, a wide receiver and add some depth at linebacker from the draft.
Christian Ponder Continues to Improve
In this world of instant gratification, there is no longer any patience to allow a quarterback to develop. A lot of that also has to do with the immediate success of several young quarterbacks in recent years. It started in 2008, when Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, the first two quarterbacks selected in the draft led their respective teams to the playoffs.
Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, first-round draft picks in 2009 played well enough to lead their teams to the postseason—Sanchez led the Jets to consecutive AFC championship games in 2009 and 2010. Stafford led the Lions to the playoffs last season.
This year, Christian Ponder is one of six quarterbacks drafted in the last two seasons that has his team in the playoffs. In fact, of the 12 quarterbacks in the playoffs, only three of them are over 30, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Schaub, with Aaron Rodgers at 29.
When you look at these four quarterbacks, only Manning started his rookie season. Brady didn't start until his second season and Schaub and Rodgers not until their fourth season.
In his first full year as the starter, Ponder finished 10-6. And while it was not always pretty, when you compare his record over the last two seasons to that of Manning's or Rodger's, it's not that bad.
After only winning two of 10 games last season, Ponder has a 12-14 record. During Manning's rookie season, he finished 3-13 and followed that with a 13-3 record for a 16-16 mark through two full seasons.
During Rodgers' first year after replacing Brett Favre, he finished 6-10. He followed that up with an 11-5 record for a combined 17-15 after two years as the starter.
With some additional talent around him, Ponder will continue to get better, and whether he wins or loses against the Packers in the playoffs, it will be good experience for the young quarterback.
Sign Percy Harvin to a Contract Extension
Percy Harvin led the Minnesota Vikings in all-purpose yards his first three seasons in the NFL. This season, before an ankle injury ended his year in Week 9 at Seattle, Harvin was one of the leading receivers in the NFL. Even though he missed the final seven games, he still led the Vikings with 62 receptions and 677 yards.
He has been good for at least one kickoff return for a touchdown in each of his four seasons, and his five returns for touchdowns is the most in franchise history.
There have been plenty of rumors flying around as to the real reason Harvin was placed on injured reserve. A deteriorating relationship between him and head coach Leslie Frazier is at heart of the situation.
There was the confrontation between Harvin and head coach Leslie Frazier that occurred on the sideline of the Seattle game—the last game Harvin was active. Tom Pelissero from 1500ESPN reported that another exchange between the two, citing four NFL sources, that occurred on December 20.
This one is simple—the Vikings must find a way to lock up Harvin long term. The NFL is about winning, and Harvin is one of the most-talented players in the NFL.
Keep the Coaching Staff Intact
If the Minnesota Vikings want consistency on the field, they need some consistency in their coaching staff. The team has not had the same coaching staff in consecutive seasons since 2008 and 2009.
This season, head coach Leslie Frazier replaced three coaches, most notably replacing Fred Pagac at defensive coordinator from defensive Alan Williams, and moving Pagac back to linebackers coach.
There has been plenty of griping from fans over the job that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has done. Considering with what he has had to work with, the Vikings offensive performed very well, especially down the stretch when they needed to win their last four games in order to make the playoffs.
Another season, working with the same core of players on the schemes developed on both sides of the ball will help the Vikings to improve next season.