With a head coach hired, and both coordinator positions filled, we have as clear of an indication as to what direction this team is headed as we will get for quite some time.
On offense, the hiring of Norv Turner suggests that the development of a quarterback and bulking up of the O-line are going to be top priorities, as he will likely want to feature power running and deep routes throughout 2014 and beyond. The defense will likely be a less-bland version of the 4-3 than what we have seen in Minnesota of late and talent is needed pretty much across the board.
The Vikings have a number of larger contracts set to expire this offseason which frees up a bunch of cap space and will allow them to make some moves. The first wave of roster movement comes in the form of re-signings as teams try to lock up their own players, at least the ones they want. The releasing of some some players (like, perhaps, Erin Henderson) might make this list grow, but here is an attempt to prioritize targets within the Vikings own roster.
THE TOP TIER
MATT CASSEL, QB: Technically, Cassel is not a free agent… yet. He has the ability to opt out of the second year of his contract which pays him $3.15 million with the Vikings. Jay Cutler has already been retained by Chicago and this year’s free agent quarterback class leaves a ton to be desired. It could be really tempting for Cassel to shoot for bluer (more lucrative) waters this offseason and the Vikings really need to convince him to stick around. Without Cassel on the roster this team appears stuck without a plan A, B, or even plan C.
EVERSON GRIFFEN, DE: Everson Griffen didn’t impress in 2013 the way he did in 2012, but then again either did just about anyone on this roster. It remains to be seen how he can hold up playing full games over a full season, but the young, athletic defensive end has shown his ability to be disruptive in the backfield. It would really be disappointing to see the Vikings let him leave without a fight as they are headed for great transition along the defensive line.
TOBY GERHART, RB: Gerhart is most likely heading for a team willing to pay him to be a starter, or at least a key part of a rotation, instead of staying with the Vikings where Adrian Peterson is cemented as the top running back. Running backs are no longer “a dime a dozen” as they were a few years back, so Gerhart actually stands to sign a decent sized contract as an unrestricted free agent. The Vikings would probably love to sign him back, but logic indicates it is a long shot.
JARED ALLEN, DE: It would be nice to see the Vikings get creative and structure a deal with Allen that sees him play out his career with the Vikings like they did with Antoine Winfield. The problem with that is that the Vikings didn’t honor their end of the bargain and jettisoned Winfield after he earned incentives the hard way, thus burning up any goodwill they might have had with their veteran leaders. Allen has noted how much Minnesota means to him, and maybe bringing Mike Zimmer to town changes things, but it seems unlikely that Minnesota will be the top bidder for his services at this point in his career.
KEVIN WILLIAMS, DT: The decline of Kevin Williams has been tough to watch, but he put together a few nice games in 2013, and the Vikings could certainly do worse than bringing him back for another season or two. Still, age is catching up to the life-long Viking, and the price would certainly have to be right. As is the case with Allen, the age and experience of Williams means the most the Vikings could net in the form of a compensatory pick is a fifth rounder should he sign elsewhere as a free agent.
JOSH FREEMAN, QB: Josh Freeman’s one game as a Viking is nothing but a joke at this point, but it is still hard to argue that there will be better quarterbacks available on the open market this offseason. Freeman’s age, relative successes, and experience will interest somebody as the upside just might still show itself as his career progresses. The Vikings could get a decent compensatory pick by letting him walk, but I can’t help but wonder who they would view as an upgrade to the strong-armed Freeman when free agency rolls around.
J’MARCUS WEBB, OT: We didn’t see a lot of Webb until late in the season when he had to fill in for the injured Phil Loadholt. One horrible play aside, he wasn’t too bad. The Vikings needed a swing tackle last offseason, and Webb was signed to fill that role, and it might be nice to simply re-up with him for another year and cross offensive tackle off the needs list all together.
MARVIN MITCHELL, OLB: Mitchell proved to be a spirited and streaky player in 2013, with some surprisingly high-quality plays added to his resume. However, consistency plagued his efforts and he never really seemed to find a good fit anywhere within the roster. That could change within Mike Zimmer’s defense, however, and Erin Henderson’s rash of arrests certainly doesn’t hurt his cause.
FRED EVANS, DT: I should probably have Fred Evans higher on this list based off of his play these last two seasons. Heck, based off of just that I should probably have him higher than Kevin Williams. I don’t know what it is, though, I just have a hunch we should let him go.
JEROME SIMPSON, WR: The Vikings just don’t need Jerome Simpson, his inconsistencies, or his off-field nonsense anymore. Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and Jarius Wright seem like a great start for this passing game and Greg Childs remains a wild card in all of this. With cash in hand and plenty of draft picks at his disposal, I think it is time to call it quits with the guy who didn’t quite turn out to be Cris Carter v2.0.
DESMOND BISHOP, ILB: It was a nice, hopeful signing at the time. Bishop’s injury proneness once again derailed a season of his, however, and while he might not be willing to admit he’s snakebit, I’m betting the Vikings turn to younger and healthier options.
JOE BERGER, C/G: I’d have no problem if the Vikings signed Berger back as he has been just fine as a reserve player. In fact, if they let Charlie Johnson walk like I suspect they might then Berger gets bumped up this list a spot or two. What we need are guys that can push the envelope, however, and increase the intensity of this offensive line via the left guard spot. I’m not sure that guy is on the current roster.
CHARLIE JOHNSON, G: I don’t see much reason to keep an aging guard that never really established himself as a consistent force. He was better at guard than he was at left tackle, but that really isn’t saying much. Continuity has some value along the offensive line, but it talent shouldn’t be ignored to obtain it. Bringing Johnson back to start would be a major disappointment.
JOE WEBB, QB/WR: Joe Webb just never worked out and I take no pleasure in writing that. Webb is just not an NFL quarterback or an NFL wide receiver, though, and the Vikings need to focus their efforts elsewhere.
JUSTIN TRATTOU, DE: Even with the inevitable turnover along the defensive line, Trattou was merely a roster filler, and will not be a priority this offseason at all. He’ll come cheap, though, so he might just find himself invited to training camp to fight for a reserve role.
CHRIS COOK, CB: The only reason I didn’t create a special category for my favoritist cornerback ever is because Zimmer seems to have an affinity and a knack for restoration projects, and Cook just might fit the bill. I’ll be very disappointed if Cook joins Minnesota for training camp, though, he’s been a disappointment in every sense of the word.
It should also be noted that the some players are in need of a contract but are either restricted free agents (RFA) or exclusive rights free agents (ERFA): RB Matt Asiata (ERFA), LB Larry Dean (RFA), and CB Marcus Sherels (RFA) are three players to watch in this regard. At the very least, Sherels has proven to be one of the NFL’s better punt returners and depth players and I would expect he gets retained via a tender or contract extension.
[NOTE: This post originally omitted a few players by accident. It is now updated and accurate.]