Rick Spielman building a homegrown contender
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The Denver Broncos tore through the 2014 free agency class like a man who’d just won the Mega Millions jackpot. Anxious for a championship and fearful of Peyton Manning‘s sudden demise, general manager John Elway lured as many big names to Denver as possible, evoking a “win now” mentality in the Broncos locker room.

Certainly not the first team or the last to “hire” mercenaries, the Broncos spent exorbitant amounts of money in 2014 to make their roster the deepest, most talented in the league. That offseason, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and T.J. Ward arrived in Denver, bringing the skills and pedigree the Broncos lacked to take that final step to the Super Bowl.

Elway’s spending frenzy finally paid off, as Peyton Manning and the über-talented Broncos won Super Bowl 50 together this year, earning the greatest “return on investment” that the NFL has to offer. But 2015 is over, and the 2016 season looms in the near future. That championship team is missing key pieces, as the rest of the league has done to the Broncos what they did to them in 2014. Gone are names like Peyton Manning and Owen Daniels. In their place? Career-disappointment Mark Sanchez and yet-to-be-named NFL draft picks.

“Winning” free agency is a double-edged sword, one that worked well for the Broncos, but suddenly spells uncertainty in Denver. Every team attacks the open market differently, which brings us to the Minnesota Vikings, who continue to take a prudent, if sometimes cautious approach in the process.

No, there are no Super Bowl banners in Minnesota, and other outside signings — Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace — failed to make an impact in recent years, but Rick Spielman is quietly building the Vikings into a homegrown contender. Free agents are staying in town, under-the-radar names are finally choosing Minnesota as a new home, and other recent acquisitions — Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn — are contributing in tangible ways every Sunday.

These Vikings may not have names that “jump” off the screen or stand out in the newspaper,  but they’re winning games as a cohesive, well-coached, and tight-knit roster. Consistent coaching, a thoughtful spending strategy, and youth means Minnesota may soon end up on the same national stage as the Broncos — the Super Bowl.

Dragged down and defeated in front of a nationwide audience, the Vikings were a surprising 0-1 to begin the 2015 regular season. An embarrassing 20-3 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers turned optimism into pessimism for Vikings fans, who questioned the direction of the team.

“Why isn’t Adrian Peterson running the football more? Is this defense overrated?”

At that point of the season, sure, the questions were warranted. Mike Zimmer’s defensive unit couldn’t stop the run, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t complete a pass, and Peterson couldn’t run from the shotgun to save his life. The Vikings didn’t look like the Vikings fans remembered, the Vikings who surprised many by going 7-9 in 2014 without Peterson rumbling out of the backfield.

Zimmer righted the ship quickly, though, getting his players to buy into the season-long process that is reaching the playoffs and beyond. The rest of the way, the Vikings went 11-4, wining their first NFC North title since 2009 and coming inches within moving into the second round of the NFC playoffs.

So, what went right? Obviously, Peterson dominated on the ground, winning his third rushing title and serving as the engine in Minnesota’s run-first offense. The defense found it’s form, dominating behind impressive, 16-game efforts from Griffen, Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith. The tried-and-true names contributed as expected, but it was the newcomers, the rookies, and the unknowns who really helped put the Vikings over the top.

Keeping their own

The Vikings are one of the best teams in the NFL when it comes to retaining “homegrown” talent, or players that were drafted by Minnesota. Before the start of the 2015 regular season, 31 original draftees were on roster, which was the third-highest total in the league at the time. Another statistic, taken from Part 1 of the Vikings Territory Offseason Plan, further illustrates the local makeup of the Vikings roster:

After the 2015 regular season — and before free agency — about 60 percent of the roster (including the ten players on injured reserve) was drafted by the Vikings. Only 27 percent was added through free agency, with the remaining 13 percent coming from a combination of trades and undrafted free agents, who, to an extent, could be considered “drafted” players themselves.

Fast-forward to March 9th, or the opening of the 2016 league year. The Vikings started with 17 unrestricted/restricted free agents, and through nearly two weeks, have retained 12 of those players. From names like Terence Newman to Rhett Ellison, Minnesota’s made it a priority to keep the lesser-known, uniquely-valued players in town.

Marcus Sherels left to visit the New York Jets, but found his way back to the Vikings, where he’s quietly become one of the NFL’s most consistent, reliable punt returners. And then there’s Mike Harris, arguably the Vikings’ best offensive lineman in 2015; the team originally low-balled his offer, only to lure him back to Minnesota with the promise of a playoff berth and a starting spot for the second-straight year. There’s clearly value to the Vikings in players like Sherels, Newman, and Harris, who act as the glue on a team filled with rising stars.

Some may contest that the Vikings put too much value in certain players, and that’s fair. The first to come to mind is Andrew Sendejo, an average player (at best) who returned to the team on a four-year, $16 million contract. He’s not the answer at strong safety, but clearly, Spielman likes Sendejo for his versatility and contributions on special teams. And Kenrick Ellis, who’s he? Why sign an unknown veteran when there’s plenty of defensive tackles to be had in this year’s NFL Draft? Easy — he performed well enough as a backup in 2015 to earn another shot next season. Sendejo, Ellis, and a handful of other players return to promote consistency and create competition this offseason; competition that ensures the best of the best make it to the top of the depth chart next September.

No matter what the fans, or the fan bloggers like myself think — good or bad — Minnesota’s front office has a plan, and they’re sticking to it. Rhett Ellison, for example, may start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but he’s too talented a player to lose in free agency. Matt Asiata, for all his straightforward running and lack of “flash,” rounds out a three-headed backfield of Peterson, Jerick McKinnon, and himself.

Their value is much less elsewhere, and Minnesota is one of a few teams in the league offering a chance to play in a new stadium, compete for a division title, and make playoff runs for many years to come. That’s why playing for the Vikings is such an attractive thought, not only for returning players, but for those on the open market.

New home, familiar faces

More so than in recent memory, the Vikings made a splash — not a ripple — during free agency. The signings of Alex Boone, Emmanuel Lamur, and Michael Griffin fill needs on a team with very few holes. Boone will step in immediately at left guard, Lamur may replace the yet-to-be-signed Chad Greenway, and Griffin, at the very least, will push Sendejo for the starting strong safety spot. But more than filling needs, they’re players who add another element of consistency to the Vikings.

As Ben Goessling wrote after the Vikings inked Brian Leonhart to a one-year deal, the Vikings have signed six free agents from another team this offseason, and five of those have played for a current member of the Vikings’ coaching staff. The list, in full:

  • Tony Sparano, Offensive Line Coach: Alex Boone, Brian Leonhardt
  • Jerry Gray, Defensive Backs Coach: Michael Griffin
  • Mike Zimmer, Head Coach: Emmanuel Lamur, Andre Smith

Zimmer is the biggest draw for many free agents, who respect his player-first approach to coaching and trust the job he’s done in Minnesota after just two seasons at the helm. Smith visited the Vikings early last week, only to leave without a deal. But in the process, he praised Zimmer and the front office for their hospitality and eventually made the decision to hop back on a plane to Minnesota and sign a one-year contract.

The Vikings aren’t the Broncos. They’re not targeting top free agents and quickly weaponizing their roster for a Super Bowl run. There’s a deliberate pattern with the signings, from the connection to coaches on the team to the emphasis on bringing back select free agents. Add in young studs like Stefon Diggs, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, and of course, Teddy Bridgewater, and you’re looking at a team with the right blend of veteran leadership and youth to compete for a long, long time.

We’ll be talking about free agency next year at this time, when the decisions become more difficult and the contracts become larger. But for now, Rick Spielman’s crafting a roster from the ground up. He’s molding his team for the future, and he’s doing so in an affordable, sensible way. There may come a time when he needs to pull the trigger on a premier free agent, but for now, he’s guiding the Viking ship straight for the playoffs.