10 Impending Free Agents Who Would Be Perfect Fits for the Minnesota Vikings

Robert Reidell@@RobertReidellFeatured Columnist IIJanuary 4, 2015

10 Impending Free Agents Who Would Be Perfect Fits for the Minnesota Vikings

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    After a very impressive month of December—and a strong rookie season as a whole—it appears that the Minnesota Vikings have finally found their franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. With the quarterback position seemingly set for the foreseeable future, general manager Rick Spielman and Co. will be focused on building around the former Louisville Cardinal this offseason.

    Spielman and the Vikings were very active in free agency last offseason, signing players like defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to multiyear contracts. While it would be a bit shocking to see Minnesota shell out as much guaranteed money as the team did last offseason, it certainly isn't out of the question.

    According to Over the Cap, Minnesota would have roughly $4 million in cap space this offseason if the NFL salary cap were to remain at its current $133 million mark. However, the NFL believes the 2015 salary cap will be between $138.6 and $141.8 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    The average of these two salary-cap figures amounts to $140.2 million, which would mean each team would (roughly) receive an additional $7 million in cap space to spend during free agency or to extend current players' contracts.

    If this is the case, when the 2015 league year and free agency officially begin on March 10, Minnesota would have about $11 million in salary-cap space.

    This cap figure isn't set by any means, either, as Minnesota will likely add more salary-cap space by restructuring player contracts and through other roster adjustments.

    In regard to "other roster adjustments," fullback Jerome Felton, for example, recently told Chris Tomasson of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that he plans to opt out of his current contract, effectively freeing $2.5 million more in salary-cap space.

    Additionally, there has been speculation about the possibility of the team releasing Munnerlyn—even if it was the cornerback himself who may have begun the speculation in comments made to Tomasson—which would take another $3.16 million off the Vikings' books. Contrary to this Over the Cap figure, ESPN's Ben Goessling notes that the Vikings would save $2.5 million if the team were to part with Munnerlyn, which slightly alters these salary-cap estimations.

    If Minnesota decides to release running back Adrian Peterson and linebacker Chad Greenway, as opposed to restructuring their contracts, the Vikings would accrue another $13 million and $7.1 million, respectively, in salary-cap relief.

    As unlikely as it may be, Minnesota could add an estimated sum of roughly $26 million in 2015 salary-cap space if the team were to remove the contracts of Felton, Munnerlyn, Peterson and Greenway from its salary cap.

    Simply put, the Vikings could (relatively) easily end up having plenty of money to work with in free agency if one or more of these speculated decisions come to fruition over the next few months leading up to the official beginning of the 2015 season.

    With that said, however, a good portion of this money could go toward contract extensions (Harrison Smith, Jarius Wright) and re-signing the team's own free agents (Tom Johnson, Joe Berger).

    It currently is a bit difficult to project which impending free agents will be within range for Minnesota because the 2015 salary-cap number has not officially been set, and there have yet to be any formal announcements or leads concerning the aforementioned speculated roster adjustments.

    However, we can be almost certain that there will be a sizable salary-cap increase—the NFL salary cap has seen dramatic growth in recent seasons, and those with inside access told Schefter this trend could continue—which means the Vikings will have the option to make one or more notable additions during free agency.

    So, with the salary-cap primer out of the way, let's take a peak at a few impending free agents who would look good in purple and gold next season.

    Note: This article is listing ideal options for the Vikings, not suggesting that the team has enough salary-cap space to sign the entire group.

ILB Rey Maualuga

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    While this article isn't ordered from best option to worst option, inside linebacker Rey Maualuga may be my favorite free-agent option for the Vikings.

    Although head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings frequently opted to have an extra defensive back on the field as opposed to an inside linebacker—Jasper Brinkley only played 471 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—Maualuga would immediately upgrade the middle level of the Vikings defense.

    In addition to being younger, more versatile and more talented overall than Brinkley, Maualuga played five seasons in Zimmer's defense from 2009-2013. This familiarity with Zimmer's complex defensive scheme alone would be a helpful boost to the interior of the Vikings' linebacker corps.

    While Maualuga doesn't have a definitive strength (coverage, run defense, etc.), he has shown an ability to be successful, though inconsistently, in each area of an inside linebacker's responsibilities. As a result of never truly excelling on a consistent basis, the former second-round draft selection has not exactly lived up to his pre-draft billing.

    However, this lack of consistency may actually work in the Vikings' favor this offseason.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Maualuga lost a considerable amount of snaps to Vincent Rey this season, which likely means the Cincinnati Bengals view him as expendable.

    When he does enter free agency, Maualuga won't command nearly as high an average annual salary as other free-agent inside linebackers such as Brandon Spikes.

    It is difficult to project exactly how high or low Maualuga's market value will be, but a good criterion may be the contract Wesley Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans last offseason. Woodyard's four-year, $15.75 million deal amounts to an average annual salary just shy of $4 million.

    Maualuga hasn't played poorly for the Bengals this season, but he has received slightly fewer than half the amount of snaps (452) that Woodyard did as a member of the Denver Broncos the season before he signed with Tennessee (859), according to Pro Football Focus. Consequently, one may assume Maualuga will receive contract offers worth even less than Woodyard's deal.

    Simply put, Maualuga's natural ability, knowledge of Zimmer's defensive tendencies and estimated market value make him a perfect fit for the Vikings.

G Mike Iupati

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    Maualuga may be my favorite free-agent option for the Vikings, but there is little doubt in my mind that signing Mike Iupati this offseason would be the most impactful move Minnesota could potentially make.

    Since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round back in 2010, Iupati has been a model of consistency. In just five NFL seasons, he has been named to the Pro Bowl (take it for what it's worth) twice and has also been named a first-team All-Pro, which should carry even more weight than his Pro Bowl appearances.

    It is difficult to judge the success of offensive linemen statistically, as there are few basic statistics to evaluate them by, but there is no doubting Iupati's ability. According to Pro Football Focus, Iupati has received a top-five run-blocking grade four times since 2010 and was second to only the Baltimore Ravens' Marshal Yanda this season with a plus-18.5 grade.

    Despite being a mauling run-blocker, Iupati isn't exactly a standout pass-blocker, which could potentially affect his value this offseason to some degree. Referring back to Pro Football Focus, Iupati ranked 50th out of 59 qualifying guards with a 95.1 pass-blocking efficiency rating in 2014.

    This should be taken with a grain of salt, in my opinion, as protecting Colin Kaepernick is likely far more difficult than protecting, say, Bridgewater, due to Kaepernick's natural tendency to leave the pocket.

    Iupati, contrary to Maualuga, will not exactly be a bargain. In fact, there is a real possibility that the 49ers or another guard-needy team will make him the highest-paid player at his position.

    While it is 2014 and not 2006, a good benchmark may be the offer sheet Minnesota used to snag Steve Hutchinson away from the Seattle Seahawks. The seven-year, $49 million contract may have been a bit pricey, but few Vikings fans would argue against it now based on the impact Hutchinson had.

    With that said, Iupati could have a Hutchinson-like effect on the Vikings, making him worth every penny.

    A potential Iupati contract would likely require the Vikings to clear some extra salary-cap space—especially if Minnesota views extending Smith as a 2015 offseason move—but that doesn't make it an unrealistic possibility.

    If the 49ers decide to spend their money elsewhere, look for the Vikings to, at the very least, consider signing the 2012 first-team All-Pro, as there will be few offensive linemen available this free-agency period who are even in the same league as Iupati.

WR Cecil Shorts

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    The 2015 free-agent group of wide receivers may prove to be the best ever. With names like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb and plenty more, this class is absolutely loaded with talent.

    While any of the previously mentioned players would look great in purple, Minnesota probably won't have the salary-cap space, and the majority of this group will likely re-sign with their current teams before free agency even begins.

    If the Vikings are planning to target a top-tier free-agent wide receiver, Greg Jennings could be released to clear some cap space and a spot on the wide receiver depth chart, but doing so would result in $6 million in dead money.

    Considering these circumstances, a mid-level option like Cecil Shorts appears to be more favorable for the Vikings.

    Despite being targeted 110 times this season, Shorts is likely expendable for the Jacksonville Jaguars due to the presence of 2014 rookies Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Consequently, Shorts will likely look to cash in during free agency come March.

    Shorts, a former fourth-round pick, has never had an elite season, but he has been productive since entering the league in 2011. Given the Jaguars' recent offensive deficiencies, his 979-yard, seven-touchdown season back in 2012 was fairly impressive.

    While he does have a tendency to drop passes—26 over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus—Shorts is an above-average route-runner and has shown that he can get open consistently, even as part of a subpar offense.

    The Vikings wide receiver corps is a bit crowded—Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson, Jarius Wright and Adam Thielen—but if Patterson isn't able to find consistency soon, Shorts would certainly be a sizable upgrade.

    Based on the recent increase in market value at the wide receiver position, Minnesota may be better off finding an upgrade in the 2015 draft, but Shorts' price should be pretty reasonable—especially because of the high number of talented free-agent options at the position.

    Again, it is difficult to project the exact value Shorts will command, but the contract Andre Roberts signed with the Washington Redskins last year may be a solid benchmark. The four-year, $16 million deal carries an average annual salary of $4 million, and Roberts' production prior to entering free agency is relatively similar to that of Shorts.

    If the Vikings elect to address the wide receiver position in free agency, look for Shorts to receive some consideration, as his talent and market value appear to fit perfectly with Minnesota's situation.

T Michael Roos

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    Is there a player Vikings fans have less confidence in than left tackle Matt Kalil? In fairness, Kalil began to play much better during December this season, but his 2014 season was still subpar to say the least.

    Aside from the quarterback position, there arguably isn't a more important position in football than left tackle due to the positional assignment of protecting the quarterback. If the Vikings believe Kalil is no longer capable of protecting their franchise quarterback, Michael Roos could be targeted in free agency.

    There is absolutely zero chance that the Vikings release Kalil this offseason, as releasing him would not create any extra cap space and would result in over $6 million in dead money, but this doesn't mean he shouldn't be replaced if he isn't able to get the job done.

    Even at 32 years old, there is little doubt that Roos would provide Bridgewater with above-average protection from his blind side, and he should be available in free agency if he doesn't opt to retire instead.

    Roos, a three-time All-Pro, spent the majority of the 2014 season on injured reserve. In his absence, rookie Tyler Lewan moved over to left tackle and had a strong season, especially by rookie standards. Lewan was drafted to replace the aging Roos, and it appears that time is now.

    There is no certainty that Roos would even entertain the idea of coming to Minnesota, as the 10-year veteran has spent his entire career as a Titan, but Lewan's emergence may force him out of Tennessee.

    Based on his recent comments about retirement, the Vikings likely wouldn't have to commit to him long term. Still, the market value for an above-average left tackle is extremely high and likely out of Minnesota's price range unless the team creates extra cap space.

    Roos would likely command a deal with an average annual value in the same neighborhood as the contract he has now, which amounts to roughly $7.2 million.

    However, the idea of having Roos as a stopgap starter until Kalil's contract expires after the 2015 season is certainly appealing.

    Although the Vikings should be capable of paying the aforementioned estimated average annual salary, it seems more likely that the team sticks with Kalil for at least one more season and acts accordingly based on his 2015 performance.

    However, if he were willing to sign a contract similar to Donald Penn's two-year, $9.6 million deal, Roos would be a welcomed addition to the Vikings' offensive line.

OLB Geno Hayes

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    Chad Greenway will go down as one of the best linebackers in Vikings history, but he no longer is the player he once was. While Gerald Hodges did play great when given the opportunity this season, the Vikings still may be in the market for an outside linebacker.

    Hayes, who currently is playing for his third team since being drafted back in 2008, had never truly excelled at the NFL level until this season.

    After being graded as the 28th-best (negative 5.4) 4-3 outside linebacker out of the 35 who qualified by Pro Football Focus in 2013, Hayes turned in an impressive 2014 season, which resulted in him being ranked 12th-best (plus 5.9).

    Despite having his best season to date in 2014, Hayes' market value should not be out of the Vikings' price range. While he did miss two games, Hayes was only on the field for 587 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. To put this snap total into perspective, Hodges played 494 snaps for Minnesota in 2014.

    Being a "part-time player" and lacking a consistent career history should hurt Hayes' market value if he isn't re-signed by the Jaguars, which will make him a bargain in comparison to other impending free agents such as Jason Worilds or even Kroy Biermann.

    While there may be one team who views Hayes as a full-time starter and is willing to overpay for his services, it appears far more likely that his contract offers will fall in the range of those signed by Sean Weatherspoon in 2010 and David Hawthorne in 2012. In terms of average annual salary, this would be between roughly $2.8 million and $3.8 million.

    Given that Minnesota should have (at least) an estimated $11 million in salary-cap space this March, Hayes will be on their radar if this estimated market value proves true.

    Zimmer and the Vikings may not be interested in signing an outside linebacker in free agency due to the recent successes of Hodges and Audie Cole, but Hayes would certainly be a cost-effective improvement over Greenway.

CB Buster Skrine

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    After an impressive 2014 season, it certainly appears that the Vikings have found their No. 1 cornerback in Xavier Rhodes. Outside of Rhodes, however, Minnesota's cornerback group was subpar overall in 2014.

    It is unlikely that the Vikings will release Munnerlyn just one season into his contract, but the team may be interested in replacing Josh Robinson, who has struggled throughout the majority of his career.

    Similar to wide receiver, the 2015 free-agent cornerback class is loaded with high-priced talent.

    Few Vikings fans would object to adding a player like Darrelle Revis to Minnesota's secondary, but it is unlikely that the Vikings would be interested in shelling out a boatload of money for a top cornerback with a large contract extension on the horizon for Rhodes.

    Buster Skrine may not have the history that Revis or other impending free agents like Brandon Flowers have, but he certainly is on the field as often as them.

    Despite being a part of the same depth chart as All-Pro Joe Haden and 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert, Skrine played the most snaps (1,152) of any cornerback on the Cleveland Browns this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Due to the presence of Haden, Gilbert and even K'Waun Williams, it would be shocking to see the Browns attempt to re-sign the former fifth-round pick, making Skrine an unrestricted free agent this March.

    Skrine is certainly talented, and he will receive consideration from multiple teams, but his erratic 2014 season and inconsistent career should keep his market value low enough for the Vikings to be in contention for his services.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Skrine was responsible for allowing a team-high eight touchdowns, but he did have multiple notable performances this season.

    When in coverage against some of the NFL's best—Antonio Brown (three targets), A.J. Green (four targets), Julio Jones (one target) and Roddy White (six targets)—Skrine was targeted 14 times this season, allowing a total of nine catches for 66 yards and zero touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus

    Although Skrine allowed roughly 64 percent of these targets to be caught, he only allowed a solid 7.3 average yards per catch, which becomes increasingly impressive when considering the level of talent these four wide receivers possess.

    Naturally, teams will notice Skrine's ability to "limit the damage" against top-tier opponents, but his inconsistency against lesser talent should keep his market value close to the five-year, $15 million contract Orlando Scandrick signed last year.

    While Skrine's height (5'9") wouldn't be an improvement over Robinson (5'10"), he proved this season that he is capable of covering taller wide receivers like Jones (6'3") and Green (6'4"), something Robinson struggled with mightily in 2014—specifically against Brandon Marshall.

    If the Vikings are interested in "limiting the damage" against the NFC North's prolific wide receivers, Skrine should be strongly considered.

S Taylor Mays

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    Despite my minority belief that Robert Blanton had an overall strong season for the Vikings, the former Notre Dame cornerback remains a flawed tackler, and it is unlikely that he will ever become a difference-maker at the NFL level.

    Regardless of popular opinion, Blanton was surely a sufficient starter this season, and with his former Notre Dame teammate patrolling the opposite side of the field, the best way for the Vikings to address the safety position this offseason may be to sign a low-cost, high-upside talent.

    When Taylor Mays was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft, the 49ers believed they had found their starting free safety for the foreseeable future. Just one season later, he wasn't even a part of the team anymore; he was traded to the Bengals for a seventh-round draft pick in 2011.

    Through five NFL seasons, the former USC Trojan hasn't had anything close to the impact he once had for his team in college.

    There is no doubting Mays' natural ability, as he has the speed—he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the 2010 NFL combine—and size (6'3", 231 pounds) to be a difference-maker at the NFL level. For one reason or another, this impressive combination of athleticism and size hasn't translated to the NFL yet, and the Bengals will likely feel comfortable moving forward without him this offseason.

    Additionally, Mays, like Maualuga, is familiar with Zimmer's defensive scheme, as he played under him from 2011-2013. His hard-hitting skill set didn't yield positive results in Cincinnati, but it is seemingly a perfect fit for the way Zimmer likes to use his safeties, particularly Smith.

    Assuming the Bengals do decide to move on without Mays, he won't exactly command a large salary. Based on his career to date and how little he played in 2014—Mays was on the field for just 61 total snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus—Minnesota could likely reunite him with Zimmer on a $1 million salary without any guaranteed money.

    If you aren't familiar with his tenure at USC, allow Sports Vines to sum it up for you:

    He's out https://t.co/ltjVsWMprh

    — Sports Vines™ (@CollegeFBVines) December 29, 2014

    Simply put, a player with Mays' level of talent is, at the very least, worth taking a look at during training camp. If he can put it all together in Minnesota, hypothetically speaking, having two heavy hitters in the Vikings' secondary could be lethal.

DT Pat Sims

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    At first glance, defensive tackle doesn't appear to be an issue for the Vikings this offseason, as Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd and Shamar Stephen are under contract for the foreseeable future. However, if the Vikings are unable to or elect not to re-sign defensive tackle Tom Johnson, Minnesota would become relatively thin at this position.

    Stephen (6'5", 309 pounds) played the "clogger" role in relief of Joseph (6'4", 328 pounds) for the majority of this season, but his frame and natural athleticism correlate more with the "attack" or "Geno Atkins" role Floyd (6'3", 297 pounds) played in Zimmer's defensive scheme this season.

    As Bleacher Report's Darren Page notes, Stephen could step in as Floyd's backup—if Minnesota allows the 30-year-old Johnson to walk—leaving the Vikings in need of a big-bodied nose tackle to provide depth behind Joseph.

    Pat Sims may be the answer. Similar to the aforementioned Maualuga and Mays, Sims began his career as a Bengal and played under Zimmer from 2008-2012. Sims (6'4", 312 pounds) is closer in weight to Floyd and Stephen than to Joseph, but he did have some success playing nose tackle in Zimmer's defensive scheme.

    While he was a bit erratic throughout his tenure in Cincinnati, his high points earned him a couple of one-year contracts with the Oakland Raiders. However, he isn't exactly a valuable asset for the rebuilding Raiders, so it would not be surprising to see him hit the open market again come March.

    Sims was effective in a part-time role this season—particularly in run defense—frequently making the most of his 429 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and maintaining his market value in the process.

    It is hard to match what Johnson was able to accomplish for the Vikings in a backup role this season, but Sims is certainly capable of providing adequate production at a reasonable price if Minnesota is unwilling to meet Johnson's contractual demands.

    Minnesota may elect to address their interior defensive line depth through the draft, which would probably mean the Vikings wouldn't be interested in acquiring a defensive tackle during free agency.

    With that said, however, acquiring Sims on a multiyear contract with a similar average annual salary to the deal he signed last season with the Raiders—one year, $1.45 million—would give the Vikings solid defensive tackle depth without having to reach deep into their pockets.

RB Stevan Ridley

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    If the Vikings do choose to shed the salary of Peterson and move on from their superstar running back, they will have plenty of free-agent options to choose from this offseason.

    In addition to big names like DeMarco Murray and Frank Gore, running backs such as Mark Ingram, Knowshon Moreno, Shane Vereen and Ryan Mathews may be available when free agency finally begins.

    Even if Peterson isn't a Viking next year, however, the team still has 2014 rookie Jerick McKinnon under contract for multiple future seasons.

    McKinnon was an explosive rusher before sustaining an injury this season and should develop into an above-average pass-catcher. However, he was unable to find the end zone this season—partly because Matt Asiata was so successful in goal-line situations—and was often taken off the field on third downs because he was inefficient in pass protection

    According to Pro Football Focus, McKinnon received a pass-blocking grade of negative 4.7 this season, which makes it understandable that offensive coordinator Norv Turner elected to use Asiata on third downs. Additionally, he was relatively ineffective in (very) limited action inside the opponents' 10-yard line, averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt with zero scores, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

    Based on McKinnon's strengths and weaknesses as a running back, Stevan Ridley would be a perfect fit for the Vikings.

    Referring back to Pro Football Focus and Pro-Football-Reference, respectively, Ridley has received positive pass-blocking grades of 1.2, 1.9 and 1.2 over his past three seasons with the New England Patriots and has scored 21 of his 22 career touchdowns from inside the red zone.

    Simply put, Ridley's strengths complement McKinnon's weaknesses well, and he is only 25 years old, or five years away from the "drop-off age" for running backs.

    Furthermore, the average annual salary of contracts given to running backs in recent seasons has been criminally low, especially considering how frequently starters are typically involved on offense. For example, Moreno received a one-year, $3 million contract from the Miami Dolphins last year following a Pro Bowl-caliber season with the Broncos.

    Spending the majority of the season on injured reserve with an ACL injury didn't exactly help Ridley's free-agent stock this season, either. Considered one of the worst injuries in football—especially for a running back—Ridley's ACL injury should not only make him expendable for the Patriots, but it should dramatically reduce his market value and interest during free agency.

    It is difficult to estimate his market value due to all the above-mentioned factors, but signing Ridley would mean the Vikings have moved on from Peterson, accruing $13 million in salary-cap space in the process. Subsequently, a non-guaranteed salary between $1 and $3 million to see if Ridley is still the player he was before his injury would be a definitive steal.

    If Minnesota is able to restructure Peterson's contract or determines that paying the 2012 NFL MVP $15.4 million next year is in the best interest of the team, then signing a running back would be unnecessary.

    Additionally, the Vikings could decide to spend a middle-round pick on a talented running back, such as hometown favorite David Cobb, which, again, would make signing a running back during free agency redundant.

    However, if the Vikings are looking for a running back in March instead of May, we already know Ridley, a former LSU Tiger, looks good in purple and gold.

P Brett Kern

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    Evaluating the performance of punters based on statistics alone can be misleading. From a statistical standpoint, punters look good if they produce a high average, a high net average and a total of over 30 punts inside the 20-yard line.

    Since the Vikings selected former UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round back in 2013, Locke has ranked in the bottom half of all qualifying punters in each of these three categories, according to Pro Football Focus.

    More importantly, however, Locke has been flat-out terrible from an observational standpoint. He has consistently put his defense at a disadvantage over the past two seasons and rarely has created a long field for opposing offenses.

    The latter half of this tweet from Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star Tribune essentially sums up Locke's career to date:

    Bridgewater sacked on 3rd down. Bad punt by Locke, didn't get a lot of hang time on it either. #Lions start at own 45 #Vikings

    — Master Tesfatsion (@MasterStrib) October 12, 2014

    According to Pro Football Focus, Locke was the worst (negative 10.5) of 37 qualifying punters this season and the second-worst (negative 10.6) of 41 qualifying punters in 2013.

    If you happened to forget, there are only 32 teams in the NFL, which means Locke has managed to receive worse grades than punters who other teams replaced during the season due to ineffectiveness (or injury, to be fair).

    Locke's combined grade of negative 21.1 over his two NFL seasons is trumped only by Washington's Derrick Frost—who somehow managed to record a negative 21.5 grade in just one season back in 2007—for the worst two-year grade in Pro Football Focus history.

    Simply put, Locke has been historically terrible since joining the Vikings, and he needs to be replaced immediately. Field position matters in the NFL, and it especially matters to a Zimmer-coached team that attempts to suffocate the opposition with defensive excellence.

    Enter impending free agent Brett Kern, who has never recorded a negative Pro Football Focus grade in seven career seasons and was ranked the ninth-best punter in 2014.

    Similar to nearly every punter, Kern has been playing under a contract with a very low average annual salary. While his market value has likely increased since he signed a four-year, $5.19 million contract with the Titans back in 2011, it is unlikely that his next contract will have an average annual salary exceeding $3 million.

    Signing Kern would also mean the team could release Locke, effectively granting the Vikings roughly $500,000 in salary cap space.

    Good punting is worth spending a little extra money on—though the Broncos probably went a bit overboard with Britton Colquitt's three-year, $11.6 million contract—and Minnesota must recognize this.

    It is rare that a punter is a major factor in a team win, but—as Locke proved against the Dolphins with help from long snapper Cullen Loeffler (who also should be replaced this offseason)—bad punting, and long-snapping for that matter, can play a critical role in a team loss.

    There is no reason to waste another draft pick on a punter—especially a fifth-round pick—in this year's draft with quality options like Kern or even Marquette King available in free agency this offseason.

    Consistent punting is unequivocally important to team success, but there is absolutely no excuse for selecting a player who is on the field four or five times a game—Locke averaged 4.6 punts per game in 2014—in a round that has (infrequently) produced starters at more valuable positions. Just ask 2011 fifth-round pick Richard Sherman or maybe 2000 sixth-round pick Tom Brady.

    Landing a punter in free agency certainly won't qualify as a "splash signing," but the Vikings should still strongly consider acquiring a punter with Kern's track record this coming March.

    Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

    Vikings Salary Cap information courtesy of Over the Cap.

    Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

    For more Vikings news, analysis and discussion, find me on Twitter @RobertReidell.

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