[In part two of this three-part series, Austin Belisle and Brett Anderson team up to put together an in-depth free agency plan for the Minnesota Vikings. Part 1.]
Rick Spielman’s job with the Minnesota Vikings isn’t easy. In reality, any general manager’s job is a challenge. As the highest-ranking member of the team’s personnel department, Spielman is not only responsible for hiring coaches and staff members, but for building and tweaking a competitive roster each season.
His duties require year-round coordination and planning, all of which come to a head between February and April. It’s then that Spielman and his front office must finalize their college scouting, address the mad-dash that is free agency, and find new talent through the annual NFL Draft. And he does all this with a clear vision in mind, one he’s continued to develop in his five years as general manager.
We undertook a similar, if condensed, project earlier this month when we established our own vision for the Minnesota Vikings. Below, the result of our time behind Spielman’s desk in Winter Park:
“The Vikings are a young team with a key group of veteran leaders built for multiple Super Bowl runs and long-term success. The roster is constructed through the draft, with an emphasis on developing internal talent. Offensively, the west-coast scheme is centered around Teddy Bridgewater in a system that operates primarily from the shotgun and features dynamic, versatile athletes who can make plays after the catch. On defense, everything runs through athletically gifted players who can quickly pressure opposing quarterbacks and play physical, press coverage against the league’s biggest, best wide receivers.”
With a solid foundation in place, we can begin the process of addressing needs outlined in the first of this three-part series. That starts with Free Agency, and not just free agents available on the open market. We first have to decide what to do with players currently on the roster, from those at the very top of the depth chart to those obscure names right on the bubble. Once we do that, we can begin to target players who fit our vision at a reasonable price; thus informing our strategy as we prepare for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Follow along as we cut or trade current players, throw money at surprising free agents, and introduce you to a few names you should get to know. Welcome, to Part 2 of the VT Offseason Plan.
Salary Cap Snapshot
The National Football League is a moneymaking behemoth that continues to turn a profit despite public controversy and backlash. According to Bloomberg Business, the league’s 32 teams split a $7.3 billion revenue in 2014, which was a 21 percent increase over the previous season. With that increase comes an increase to the salary cap, which is expected to be $155 million in 2016. Like the revenue numbers, the new salary cap represents a tremendous jump in the league’s spending limits.
Front offices will enjoy an additional $12 million in salary cap money this season, opening the door for even more movement when free agency begins on March 9. Unfortunately, the impressive numbers don’t come without red flags; the Wall Street Journal reports that the NFL withheld millions from its players over the past three years and will be required to put at least $120 million back into a shared revenue pool this season.
As of now, the Vikings have the 19th-most cap space in the league, with $23,091,146 dollars to spend on new contracts, free agents, and restructured deals. It’s more than enough money to bring in a top-tier free agent or two, but doing so will require a few moves on the current roster. That’s where things get tricky, but not impossible.
We analyzed the current cap situation, and it’s one that gives these pseudo-general managers options. The $134,499,263 the Vikings spend is not equally or proportionally distributed, and will need to be adjusted if the Vikings are to enjoy long-term success. As you can see from the graphics above, two of the team’s weakest positions are also its most expensive, cap hit-wise — wide receiver and offensive line.
It’s reasonable to expect that positions with the most players will be the most expensive, but when taking performance or production into consideration, it’s a system that needs an overhaul. For example, the Vikings currently have seven wide receivers, all of whom account for 11.70 percent of the total salary cap. Of those seven players, Mike Wallace alone makes up 7.37 percent of that chunk; did his output in 2015 guarantee him the same contract number next season?
Three of the team’s top-five most expensive players are either wide receivers or offensive lineman, and their chances of returning in 2016 are slim without a restructure. Whether it’s an issue of age, poor vision fit, or underwhelming impact, their hefty price tags may not justify their spot with the team after the offseason. Others, like Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph, are perfect fits in our vision for the future and are undoubtedly deserving of their current contracts. And the list below may change by the end of this post, as Harrison Smith is due for an extension worthy of the game’s top safeties.
Vikings Free Agents
Before targeting outside free agents, we need to address the players set to become free agents this offseason. The list of 17 Vikings includes veterans, bubble players, and those whose time with the team should’ve ended a year ago. The dance that is free agency requires careful negotiation to ensure we not only retain top talent, but stay true to the mission we laid out in Part 1 — a core of young talent built through the draft, with veteran leadership coming from a few key players. The free agency signings and cuts below reflect that direction:
Chad Greenway, UFA: Greenway’s playing time took a major dip in 2015 (630 snaps in 2015 to 760 in 2014), but he remains one of the team’s most important leaders, on and off the field. The 11-year veteran’s value comes in two forms; he can still contribute in a limited role and he’s a necessary bridge for the team’s next weakside linebacker. Relatively healthy and fresh-legged, Greenway is worth a modest contract to play out his final season with the Vikings.
Terence Newman, UFA: With Trae Waynes likely to take over at some point in 2016 and beyond, Newman will play an important role in mentoring the second-year corner as he learns the ropes. He’ll be a 38 year-old veteran in 2016, but he outperformed his age last season and may very well follow Greenway’s contract path. A slightly bigger contract for the team’s interception leader is a fair price to pay for a player who will continue to influence the culture of the locker room.
Rhett Ellison, UFA: Ellison is a swiss army knife who can do it all for the Vikings. He’s an able pass-catcher, a willing run blocker, and the type of player we want to keep in Minnesota. His torn patellar tendon puts his season in jeopardy next year, but Ellison’s versatility on offense and special teams makes him a valuable commodity. The severity of the injury and his recovery will inform our free agency and draft strategy in targeting tight ends.
Mike Harris, UFA: On an offensive line that consistently failed to protect Teddy Bridgewater, Harris was one of the lone bright spots. He finished as Pro Football Focus’s 22nd-ranked guard and was equally effective in pass protection as he was as a run blocker. Harris will likely demand more than he made in 2015, but consistency is an undervalued aspect of offensive line play, and his presence is key to ensuring the line improves next season.
Marcus Sherels, UFA: Sherels is the perfect fit for our vision, which requires a smart, reliable punt returner who averages at least five yards per attempt. He checks every box and is a valuable asset on special teams.
Andrew Sendejo, UFA: The safety spot opposite Harrison Smith is still the defense’s biggest question mark, and Sendejo remains the safest depth choice at the position — for now. Our free agent moves partially led to this decision, but the fact remains that Anthony Harris and Antone Exum are unproven at strong safety. The one-year contract guarantees there’s a stop-gap until someone is ready to fill the spot full-time.
Matt Asiata, UFA: Difficult roster decisions forced our hand with this move, but Asiata is necessary depth at running back. He’s filled in adequately when called upon, and there’s no denying he’s valuable at the goal line for the Vikings, especially as the power back to Jerick McKinnon’s do-it-all presence in the backfield.
Audie Cole, UFA: Cole fractured his ankle last November, raising future questions about his status this offseason. Like Asiata, Cole is necessary depth at a rather thin position, especially at middle linebacker. He’s played the role of backup his entire four-year career, but that’s all we expect from Cole at this point.
Adam Thielen, ERFA: Sometimes, it just makes sense to keep a player around, and Thielen is that guy. He’s been a valuable piece on special teams, and last season, he showed the ability to step up as a wide receiver. He’s similar to Ellison in the sense that he’s the type of player we want in the locker room, but in another sense that he can fill in at multiple different positions.
Carter Bykowski, ERFA: A torn pectoral muscle ended Bykowski’s season last year, but he’s expected to make a full recovery in 2016. The offensive line was the weakest position for the team last year, and if anything, Bykowski is a depth player who can swap out at either left or right tackle when needed.
Justin Trattou, UFA: Trattou was an unexpected contributor for the Vikings in 2015 after spending two years in a reserve role. He intercepted two passes as a defensive end, all while playing just 18 snaps on defense.
Three notable cuts include Josh Robinson, Robert Blanton, and Zach Line. With Newman returning, Robinson becomes an expendable piece of the secondary. He’s a supremely talented athlete, but he doesn’t mesh well with Zimmer and struggled adjusting to the scheme in 2014. Blanton has been a disappointment for years now, and his underperformance is finally coming to an end with his status as a free agent. And with Line, we’re presented a unique situation; our scheme, a West-Coast system built around quick passes, sees little need for a full-time fullback. We can replace his roster spot by rotating versatile players like Rhett Ellison and MyCole Pruitt in his place.
Drum roll, please. The first line of our offensive vision sets the stage for this trade:
An offense built around Teddy Bridgewater, not Adrian Peterson.
Bridgewater is the centerpiece of the offense, and Peterson’s one-dimensional game limited the potential of the unit in 2015. In Jerick McKinnon, the Vikings have a running back who’s proven he can run between the tackles, catch the football out of the backfield, and most importantly, protect the football. But by trading Peterson, we’ve created a need for depth at the position, though the current draft class is chock full of options in the middle to late rounds. So the most important question becomes: Who receives Peterson, and what do we get in return?
Adrian Peterson, RB – Traded to Browns
Browns 2nd Round (32nd overall)
Browns 5th Round (Approx. 128 overall)
Vikings 4th Round (Approx. 86 overall)
Trading Peterson immediately nets us $11 million in cap room, most of which we can spend to bring in quality free agents and pay deserving players currently on the roster. While we give up a 4th-round pick in the process, we receive a 2nd and a 5th-round pick in return. The net gain is an additional pick, one we can use to address more pressing needs in this year’s draft.
McKinnon has the skills and athleticism to thrive as the three-down back in our vision, but the roster hole remains; finding more backfield talent will be key, either in March or late April.
Mike Wallace, WR: His name was mentioned earlier, but Mike Wallace does not fit the vision as a true no. 1 receiver in the Vikings offense. He’s fast, he’s perfect for the Air Coryell schemes of old, and he’s a well-known name in the NFL, but Wallace is far too expensive to keep in purple and gold. Contrary to the narrative surrounding Wallace before he arrived in Minnesota, the receiver was a model citizen with the Vikings in 2015. Still, his 39 receptions and two touchdowns failed to meet lofty expectations, and the talent available in the draft makes Wallace an expandable option moving forward. Cutting Wallace frees up $11.5 million in cap space, with absolutely zero dead money.
Phil Loadholt, RT: The Vikings drafted their long-time right tackle in T.J. Clemmings last year, making a Loadholt return to Minnesota less likely in 2016. He’s eclipsed 30 years-old, and his $7.75 million cap hit is an expensive question mark. Will the veteran tackle return full-strength after tearing his achilles tendon in the preseason last year? It’s a question we can’t afford to answer, as other areas of the offensive line need to be addressed this offseason. We’re swallowing $1.75 million in dead money, but the net savings of $6 million mean we’re armed with the money to improve the roster elsewhere.
Shaun Hill, QB: Hill’s tenure in Minnesota is over. The 36 year-old quarterback is well past his prime, and in limited playing time last season, showed little to prove he’s a capable backup. We believe Taylor Heinicke has the potential to sit behind Bridgewater, and that drafting or adding a cheap quarterback through free agency is the best, most affordable approach. The move saves us $3.25 million in 2016 with zero dead money attached.
Jeff Locke, P: Despite having incredibly low punt return yards (thanks to an otherwise exceptional special teams unit), Jeff Locke was 32nd in the league for average punt yards, 30th for net punting average, and 22nd in the league for punts within the 20-yard line. He’s not a fit for the Vikings, and his cap hit is minimal compared to other players on the list. Though we’re faced with $46,048 in dead money, punters will be available in the draft.
Scott Crichton, DE: Crichton is the unfortunate victim of too much depth on Minnesota’s defensive line. Physically, he’s a versatile athlete who fits our vision, but production-wise, he’s done very little to warrant a spot on the roster next season. In three years, the third-round selection out of Oregon State has just 10 total tackles for the Vikings. Trattou is essentially a more experienced, more affordable option at the position moving forward.
Harrison Smith, FS – Extension: Smith may have finished as Pro Football Focus’s top-ranked safety in 2015, but he’s been a top defensive player for the Vikings since he was drafted in 2012. An extension for the fifth-year pro is a necessity, as Smith is a player built for our vision. He can cover the deep half, blitz the quarterback, and thrive in the box as a run defender. His versatility gives Zimmer and the defense the flexibility to get creative, whether in blitzing situations or with third down coverages. Smith’s new contract makes him the third-highest paid free safety in the NFL, though his play has been that of the league’s best for at least two years.
Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive end, linebacker.
Our core roster-building strategy remains the same; we build through the draft and develop the talent currently on our roster. But when the opportunity presents itself to sign reasonably-priced free agents who perfectly fit our vision, we won’t hesitate to do so. We’ve seen players like Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph thrive as such additions, and we’re willing to take a chance on others who can fill present needs.
What we won’t do in free agency is overpay for a player with a recognizable name. As part of the VT strategy, we avoided the names we knew would garner interest from multiple teams, immediately crossing them off the list. That means players like Von Miller, Alshon Jeffery, and Cordy Glenn never appeared on our radar. We also eliminated free agents over 30 years-old, as the roster currently has three or four players acting as veteran leaders. If we’re going to take a chance in the open market, we’re going to do so on younger players with the potential to blossom in Minnesota.
Kelechi Osemele, G/T – Signed: The Vikings lock up one of the best, most highly sought-after offensive lineman in free agency. Osemele has the versatility to play guard or tackle on either side of the line, and will immediately step in as the team’s starting left guard. He earned a 93.4 run block grade from Pro Football Focus in 2015 and is an above-average pass protector (76.0 pass block grade). With Osemele on the roster, the Vikings immediately become a more flexible unit that can shuffle players up front as needed. He’s the type of plug-and-play lineman that deserves a top-10 contract, especially from an offensive line-needy team like the Vikings.
Honorable Mentions: Alex Boone (SF), Mitchell Schwartz (CLE)
Jeff Allen, G/T – Signed: Like Osemele, Allen is the type of player you add because of his versatility and youth. At just 26 years-old, Allen’s best football is in front of him. He played just 13 games over the past two seasons after playing almost every game his first two years in the league. All signs point to Allen wanting out of Kansas City, and we jump on his desire to leave. The signing gives us three linemen — Harris, Osemele, and Allen — who can fill in at either guard or tackle spot if needed. Of the three, Allen may be the best value, as he was Pro Football Focus’s third-best free agent guard this offseason.
Honorable mentions: Joe Barksdale (STL), J.R. Sweezy (SEA)
Zach Brown, OLB – Signed: Brown is a bit of a sleeper who never fully realized his athletic potential with the Tennessee Titans. The 6’1”, 248-pound linebacker impressed scouts with his 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and finished 2015 as Pro Football Focus’s 20th-ranked linebacker. Though he’s only started 33 games in four years, he’s a rangy cover linebacker who would fit nicely in Zimmer’s scheme as a weakside linebacker. Keeping Greenway in Minnesota gives the Vikings a chance to develop Brown into a starting-quality linebacker.
Honorable mentions: Tahir Whitehead (DET)
Bryn Renner, QB – Signed: Coming out of North Carolina in 2014, Renner was considered a 6th or 7th-round pick. NFL Draft scout Nolan Nawrocki believed he’d become a “pocket-passing, short-to-intermediate clipboard holder,” and that’s exactly what he’ll be for the Vikings. Renner is a fit in our offensive vision and has the intangible qualities desired in a backup quarterback. If he’s ever called upon, Renner has the skill set to make anticipation throws in the short to intermediate area of the field; a staple of the West-Coast passing game.
Bryce Brown, RB – Signed: Brown gives the Vikings a player who is an intriguing blend of McKinnon and Asiata. He’s a bigger back, but with the breakaway speed to turn the corner and finish runs down the sideline. Unfortunately, Brown brings a fumbling problem to Minnesota; in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles, he fumbled four times. Despite those issues, he’s a capable backup who gives the Vikings solid depth at the position.
Honorable mentions: Bobby Rainey (TB)
George Selvie, DE – Signed: The Vikings hosted Selvie for a visit last offseason, and the free agent defensive end is available again. He’s a excellent run defender, having received an 80.3 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus last season. Zimmer loves to rotate defensive ends, and Selvie would fit in well behind Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, and the emerging Danielle Hunter, especially in short-yardage situations.
James Hanna, TE – Signed: Jason Witten is the tight end in Dallas, but Hanna has been a quiet contributor for the Cowboys in recent years. He’s started 27 games over the past three seasons as the team’s secondary tight end and vertical passing threat. A freakish athlete coming out of Oklahoma in 2012, Hanna has evolved to become a serviceable blocker in two-tight end sets.
Updated Team Snapshot
We’ve had to say goodbye to a few notable players like Adrian Peterson, but in their place, we’re welcoming fresh faces who immediately fill pressing roster needs. Free agents like Kelechi Osemele and Zach Brown have the chance to immediately make a difference for a playoff contender, while other additions give the Vikings depth at a few key positions. We’re still missing a safety to pair with Harrison Smith, a true No. 1 wide receiver, and right now, no one on the roster can punt the football, but the team as a whole is improved from last season.
And fortunately, we have eight picks to spend in next month’s NFL Draft, where we’ll hopefully fill some of the roster’s biggest holes. There, we can focus on drafting the best players available because save for two or through cornerstone players, our roster is one of the deepest in the league.
In the final entry of our three-part series, we’ll share our very own big board, develop a draft strategy, and add the final pieces to make our vision for the Minnesota Vikings a reality.