Vikings free-agency tracker …
We’re tracking all things Purple, starting with what’s already happened and projecting what needs to happen as the Vikings work their way through free agency and the rest of the offseason. Here we go:
I. WHAT HAS HAPPENED
QB Matt Cassel: Traded to Buffalo, effective Tuesday, along with a sixth-round draft pick for a fifth-rounder this year and a seventh-rounder next year.
What it means: In a perfect, uncapped NFL, the Vikings would cling to the sweet security of an intelligent, even-keeled 10-year veteran backup quarterback, especially one who already knows Norv Turner’s complex numbering system. But the reality is teams don’t always have the luxury — based on current and future cap considerations — of paying guys $4.75 million while hoping they never see the field. There is a risk to letting Cassel go, but cheaper options are available. Finding a satisfactory one is a high priority in free agency.
LG Charlie Johnson: Released Feb. 27 in a move that was expected. It saved $2.5 million against the cap, but wasn’t a cap decision. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was reluctant to re-sign Johnson a year ago and his hesitancy proved to be warranted.
What it means: With veteran backup Joe Berger entering free agency, it means the Vikings don’t have a satisfactory option for a starting left guard. That has to change in free agency.
II. WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
1, Sign a No. 2 quarterback: Former Giants and Browns General Manager Ernie Accorsi used to always say, “The backup quarterback is the second most important player on your team.” He had the scar tissue to prove it.
In 1988, Accorsi’s Browns had to start four different quarterbacks to get through a 10-6 playoff season. It got so bad that Ernie had to talk former Dolphins backup Don Strock off the beach and out of retirement to come and start two games at the end of the season. The sight of the deeply-tanned Strock starting a playoff loss in the snow at Cleveland Stadium probably stuck with Accorsi until his retirement years later.
The Vikings saved $4.75 million and picked up some draft capital by trading Cassel to the Bills. They also gave up a ton of comfort that needs to be recaptured pronto. Someone already schooled in Turner’s system – like Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer – would be preferable, but not mandatory considering Turner’s ability to coach.
Those who don’t think this is Priority No. 1 should remember that Teddy Bridgewater was injured while making his NFL starting debut. It was a great rookie debut that he won. But he also missed the next game, a Thursday nighter four days later, because of injury. Christian Ponder sealed his future – or lack thereof – with the Vikings with a woeful performance in that loss at Green Bay.
The Vikings have had to use three starting QBs in each of the past two seasons. So only a fool would bank on Bridgewater or almost any other quarterback starting all 16 games.
2, Find a starting left guard: If there’s one priority that would rank ahead of backup QB, this is it. The idea is to come out of free agency and head into the draft with a team you’d be satisfied playing a game with. Right now, the Vikings don’t have a left guard that fits that description. David Yankey could become that guy. But that’s not good enough. The Vikings might be willing to spend big here because of the impact that an elite player could bring to this particular position. A player like San Francisco’s Mike Iupati not only brings a young, Pro Bowl-caliber player at left guard. He’d also help left tackle Matt Kalil settle back in as a reliable left tackle. Johnson lacked the strength to maintain the pocket against defensive ends that used inside moves. A solid presence at left guard would help stabilize Kalil and obviously help Bridgewater as well.
3, Add a middle linebacker: Underrated Audie Cole has come through in a pinch enough times at multiple linebacker positions to provide a certain level of comfort if the Vikings had to start him in the middle. He also could become a starter on the outside if the Vikings move on from Chad Greenway. However, with a weak linebacker draft and last year’s starter, Jasper Brinkley, set to enter free agency, the Vikings at least need to come out of free agency with another option to compete at middle linebacker. Until a young, dynamic three-down middle backer can be found via the draft – unlikely this year – the Vikings might best be served by bringing Jasper Brinkley back to fill a more limited role again this year.
4, Search hard for that elusive No. 1-type WR: This feels high on the list for free agency considering the world’s 6.2 billion mock drafts all have the Vikings taking one of the top two or three receivers available with the 11th pick in the draft. But perhaps you’ve noticed – or maybe not – that roughly 6.2 billion mock drafts tend to be wrong every spring. So the Vikings need to at least explore the possibilities for a prototypical No. 1-type receiver. They have enough Nos. 2-4-caliber wideouts that they don’t have to approach free agency in desperation mode, as they did when they overpaid to secure Greg Jennings two years ago. What’s needed is a big, fast receiver who can catch the ball and not be a pain in everybody’s backside. They’re tough to find and they’re a lot more expensive via free agency than the draft. And you better not whiff in free agency or your salary cap will be affected for years to come.
5, Keep looking for an upgrade at strong safety: The Vikings tried to upgrade this position in free agency a year ago, but failed with Kurt Coleman. They got desperate in training camp and signed Chris Crocker, only to release him and settle for Robert Blanton, a player with durability issues that visibly annoyed coach Mike Zimmer. Blanton played every snap of the first 12 games. But an injury late in the 13th game caused him to miss a game. Once healthy, he lost his starting job to Andrew Sendejo, further solidifying the belief that Blanton and Sendejo are only stopgaps alongside free safety Harrison Smith. And Antone Exum needs more time to develop before he’s even considered as a potential starter.
6, Once again, more cornerbacks needed: The Vikings are getting better at finding talented cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes has a Pro Bowl and possibly All-Pro ceiling. However, the Vikings are still struggling when it comes to finding enough corners to win a fight with Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings admitted that Captain Munnerlyn is better suited as an inside nickel back in passing situations. So that means they’re looking for a starter. But Josh Robinson, while improving, still hasn’t proven himself worthy of becoming a trusted starter. The Vikings would be wise to explore the cornerback market in free agency and the draft as well.
7, Find a left end for D-line rotation: Brian Robison is on the wrong side of 30, Corey Wootton is a free agent and who knows what to expect of 2014 rookie Scott Crichton, who had an invisible season. Depth was a huge part of the D-line’s turnaround last year. Time to restock the shelves.
8, While you’re at it, another DT, please: Speaking of which, Tom Johnson was exceptional and underrated in his limited role as an interior pass rusher in the sub packages. He also could play outside at end if needed. A year ago, Johnson was a free agency signing that wouldn’t have turned the head of Tom’s mom. But it was an outstanding pickup and the perfect example of what can happen when the coaching side helps the personnel side envision what it’s looking for. Another one of those under-the-radar depth signings at D-tackle – perhaps Johnson again – would be nice.
9, Remember how many holes Berger plugs: We’d compare Joe Berger to the Little Dutch Boy. But the Dutch kid only plugged one hole to save the town. Berger has his fingers set to plug all three potential holes on the interior offensive line. His primary position is center, but he can play at a winning level at both guard spots as well. The Vikings found that out again last year when right guard Brandon Fusco went down for the season in Week 3. Berger is a free agent again and needs to be re-signed or replaced. Re-signing him is the easier and most comforting solution.
10, Look for a swing tackle: Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure where to put swing tackle on the list. Or even if it belongs on the list. The Vikings believe they have something in Antonio Richardson, an undrafted rookie a year ago. And they like Carter Bykowski. And restricted free agent Mike Harris did OK stepping in for the injured Phil Loadholt for an extended period last season. Richardson looks the part, so if his knees hold up – a big if – and he keeps getting in shape, maybe he’s a find. Don’t know anything about Bykowski, a late-season pickup, and Harris has promise. But given last year’s struggles with Loadholt’s injury and Matt Kalil’s ineffectiveness, it wouldn’t hurt to snoop around some more seasoned tackles in free agency.
10b, Don’t forget your long snapper: We’ll sneak long snapper in here before we wrap it up. After all, you never really understand the importance of a long snapper until you suffer a game-losing safety in the closing minutes in Miami. Cullen Loeffler is set to enter free agency so, currently, the Vikings don’t have a long snapper. The Dolphins game doesn’t help Loeffler, but his overall body of work over 11 seasons could earn him a 12th year in Minnesota.
Other potential needs: A, Not sure you’ve heard, but Adrian Peterson’s situation is a little murky. If he’s not coming back, it obviously changes things. The Vikings could dip into free agency for the right price and age if that’s the case. The team has said it wouldn’t do that, but in case you haven’t noticed, transparency in the NFL is in short supply this time of year. B, If Greenway’s well-publicized acceptance of another pay cut causes the Vikings to overstep into a disrespectful lowball offer, Greenway could be cut. Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole are in place to fight for the potential opening, but the Vikings also would need to explore veteran alternatives in free agency. C, Lost in the fixation on Peterson’s $12.5 cap figure is the Jennings’ $11 million cap figure. Let’s be honest. Jennings came here for the money. It’s hard to picture him giving it back. The Vikings probably have to hang on to that cap figure until a better option is obtained. If one is found, Jennings could be cut. And that would create the need for more depth at receiver.
We legitimately started the day thinking, “Hey, we’ve been writing a lot of negative things lately. … Let’s try writing something positive.”
And then we noticed that Nikola Mirotic had another monster game for the Bulls — 26 points and eight rebounds in a big win over Oklahoma City — and we had to fall down the rabbit hole that is the 2011 draft and re-explore, albeit briefly, just how damaging one night was to the Wolves.
I was at Target Center, in the media room, that night, as the Wolves and David Kahn traded pick after pick after pick. Here is a summary of that night, from NBA.com:
In addition to taking Derrick Williams with the No. 2 pick, Minnesota …
-The Wolves traded point guard Jonny Flynn, a future second-round pick and the 20th pick – Donatas Motiejunas – to Houston for center Brad Miller, the draft rights to No. 23 pick Nikola Mirotic and No. 38 Chandler Parsons and a future first-round pick.
-Traded Mirotic to the Chicago Bulls for the draft rights to No. 28 Norris Cole and No. 43 Malcolm Lee and cash.
-Traded Cole to the Miami Heat for No. 31 Bojan Bogdanovic, a future second-round pick and cash.
-Traded Bogdanovic to New Jersey for a future second-round pick and cash.
-Traded Parsons back to Houston for cash.
In a lot of cases, No. 2 picks become good or great NBA players. That did not happen with Williams in Minnesota, of course, as he was dispatched last season in exchange for Luc Mbah a Moute.
That was a big miss. The top of that draft, after Kyrie Irving, was a crap shoot. Williams was the consensus right pick, and he didn’t work out. There were players taken immediately after him who have become productive (but not great) players. Klay Thompson at No. 11 has become great, but that would have been a huge stretch. So the Wolves can be forgiven, but it still hurts.
What hurts more, though, is the strange run of just how good all the players they gave away after that have become. It’s odd for No. 20, No. 23, No. 28 and No. 38 picks to do what they have done. But …
*Motiejunas has developed into a regular for the Rockets, averaging 11 points this season in 28 minutes per game.
*Mirotic has at least 23 points in each of his past three games and seems to be blossoming into a very good player for the Bulls.
*Cole is a quick and functional backup point guard who was in the regular rotation for the Heat’s championship contending teams.
*Parsons is a very good shooter and all-around player who is averaging close to 15 ppg in his career.
That 2011 draft has looked bad for a while. The emergence of Mirotic only makes it even worse. The Wolves made plenty of personnel blunders during the Kahn Era, so it’s hard to say one night hurt more than any other. But June 23, 2011 … that ranks right up there with the worst.
We do love the idea of shiny things, splashy free agency moves. They’re not always practical, but the make for good conversation.
But when it comes to the notion of the Vikings making a play for Brandon Marshall — the talented WR whom the Bears are reportedly seeking to trade — let’s please just shut it down. Just say no.
Esteemed colleague Matt Vensel took a swing at this already in his mailbag today, and we’d like to pile onto what he wrote.
For as good as Marshall is/can be, this is not the time for the Vikings to make a play for a costly impact player. This is a year in which they need to draft another wide receiver in one of the first three rounds and hope that that player, Cordarrelle Patterson or Charles Johnson develops into a No. 1 receiver.
As nice as it would be for Teddy Bridgewater to have another sure-thing veteran, Greg Jennings is already filling that role. His production does not match Marshall’s production, and his $11 million cap number is hefty. But even if the Vikings cut Jennings to make a play for Marshall, the price to pay in a trade wouldn’t make sense for a rebuilding team.
Marshall — if he’s traded at all — should go to a team that is a wide receiver away from true contention, not an improving team that figures to be at least a year or two away from being a serious threat.
And the Vikings should set their sites on patience and minor upgrades in more important areas.