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[Note:  Want to see a list of every player featured in our “Draft Target” segment?  Click here to visit the Offseason Tracker where there will be a list of all these players.  Check back often as there are plenty more to come!]

If you haven’t guessed by this point in the offseason, yes, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Vikings might proactively look towards the NFL Draft to replace veteran Chris Kluwe before the final year of his contract is played out.  In my profile of Louisiana Tech punter Ryan Allen I talked about Kluwe’s high salary, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s comments about Kluwe’s exhaustive off field endeavours  and also just the possibility of finding an upgrade at the position.

Since writing that article I have become even more convinced (keep in mind now, this strictly irresponsible speculation Adam talking, not news reporting Adam) that Kluwe’s cap hit could be reason enough for his early exit.  The team currently has about $4.4 million in cap space, which is not likely to even be enough to sign their entire Draft class, let alone sign a guy like Antoine Winfield to a new contract on top of that.  That means something has to happen, and while Kevin Williams or Jared Allen could still be candidates to change their contract status, finding an upgrade to Kluwe in the Draft and exchanging his $1.4 million salary for a rookie deal might just make too much sense.

The key to all of this, however, is finding a rookie that can be a clear upgrade to Kluwe like the Vikings found at kicker last year with Blair Walsh.  I’ve already talked about how I think Ray Allen is that guy but may require a very high level of investment from a draft pick standpoint.  This is actually a fairly talented and fairly deep punter class, but outside of Allen only one other guy really stands out as an excellent prospect.

LSU’s Brad Wing (6′ 3″ and 184 pounds) is unlikely to relieve Priefer of all drama on his squad, as he comes with a bit of a history.  Wing is Australian born (do I even need to continue?) and, thus, has a brazen attitude and a tendency to find himself a “good time.”  Its okay, I can say stuff like that, my best friend is an Aussie.

He first became noticed on a national level when he… a punter, mind you… nullified his own 52 yard touchdown run on a fake due to taunting the opponents prior to crossing the goalline.  In his defense, as the video evidence shows, it was kind of a weak call.  His troubles didn’t stop there as he was suspended for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl due to breaking team rules, and at least one unconfirmed report said it was substance related, and there have been rumors of other off-field incidents plaguing the young talent.

Wing became the first punter to declare early for the NFL Draft, he was a redshirt sophomore in 2012, since Chris Gardocki did it way back in 1991 and he certainly has the leg to justify such a move.

Wing started 24 games at LSU after playing just one year of high school ball as an exchange student.  He was second in the SEC with a 2011 punt average of 44.4 yards and last ranked 12th in the nation with a 44.8 yard average.  He occasionally unleashes ridiculously powerful punts like his 73 yarder against Alabama in 2011, eight more career punts of 60 yards or greater.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the talent he displays for directional punting.  He has explained that his ability to do this with such proficiency comes from another game in another hemisphere:  Australian Rules Football.

“You can score from any angle and distance so there’s a lot of kicks I’ve gotten used to over the years where the American kickers they just kind of stand there and kick it as far and high as they can,” Wing said in 2011. “That’s not my mindset. I’m just trying to kick it away from the return man. Coming over to America, I didn’t really understand why punters kicked to the return man.”

As of that article, dated January 6th, 2011, Wing had amazingly punted the football 50 times and LSU had only allowed six (yes, six) punt return yards in total.  That is pretty amazing, really.

Now, maybe having Tyrann Mathieu on the coverage squad had a lot to do with that, because LSU’s overall punting game was quite as dominant in 2012, but Wing still was a cut above most punter prospects in most respects.

The question for NFL teams is whether or not they will be able to depend on Wing to stay out of trouble and be available on a weekly basis.  The last thing an NFL team wants to do is use two roster spots on punters because the first one couldn’t stay smart.  Without knowing how teams truly view Wing’s character it is impossible to predict where he will be selected.  He is talented enough to be a third round pick, but is troubled enough to go undrafted.

If he starts to fall on Draft weekend, and the Vikings are intrigued enough, then he might just be a solution to a problem that is only one year away from being a significant one.  For some NFL team’s fans, he will surely be one of the most intriguing players to watch in training camp.

 

The Vikings brass, and Jared Allen, spent last night and today courting free agent wide out Greg Jennings by taking him out to the famous Manny’s Steakhouse and touring the Winter Park facilities.

Now, Jennings is a Minnesota Viking under a five year deal, which fills a huge need on the wide receiver depth chart.

Jennings played with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for his whole career, but will now be playing with Christian Ponder who needs to continue to improve in order to maintain his status as the franchise’s quarterback of the present and the future.

Jennings, 29 years old, is coming off of an injury plagued season that turned out to be the worst of his career.  He managed only 36 catches for 366 yards and four touchdowns.  Still, the assumption is that he is fully healthy now and will strive to return to the 1,000 yard plus receiver that he was known as, which the Vikings need so desperately.

With Percy Harvin being  traded to Seattle the Vikings have Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, and Stephen Burton on the Vikings depth chart that could still see some movement this offseason.  The Vikings are still expected to use some combination of their 11 draft picks to add youth and talent at the position.

Jennings has played 96 games in his career and has caught 425 balls for 6,537 yards and 53 touchdowns.

His new deal is expected to be $47.5 million over the five years, with $18 million guaranteed, which is a $9.5 million per year average.

Rick Spielman had a lot of kind things to say about his staff at Thursday’s press conference prior to introducing Leslie Frazier who described Friday as a “great day for the Minnesota Vikings.”  Frazier also placed an emphasis on Jennings having high character and leadership qualities, which are the types of statements that were all too predictable following the trade of Harvin.

“I’m excited, today is a great day, and I’m looking forward to what the future holds,” said Jennings right off the bat who went on to describe his first walk into free agency and give his respects to the Green Bay Packers organization.

“It was just a family feel.  It felt comfortable,” Jennings said of his visit with the Vikings who said the team is a contender for whom the window is now opening, not closing.  He also said the move was selfish in that he is looking forward to playing with Adrian Peterson who commands the attention of an entire defense.

Jennings also talked highly of Christian Ponder’s game tape and feels he has matured, and will continue to mature, as a passer in the NFL and is looking forward to helping him out with that.

“It’s a fresh new start.  A Change,” he said.  “I’m looking forward to the change.”

Jennings said that his choices “pretty much” came down to Minnesota and Green Bay, and then cited his dinner with Jared Allen as a big reason why he made the decision he did.

Jennings ended his conference by saying, with a huge smile, that it is important to note he is currently 29 years old and will not be 30 until after the season starts.

Rick Spielman and the Minnesota Vikings has blown up the depth chart when it comes to wide receiver by releasing Michael Jenkins, letting Devin Aromashodu hit free agency, and trading Percy Harvin to Seattle.  They have allowed two of their starting linebackers, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, explore free agency.  They changed the landscape of the secondary by releasing feisty veteran Antoine Winfield.

They are also rumored to be pursuing a new backup quarterback.

One thing that is interesting, however, is that the team has opted to maintain a great deal of continuity on both the offensive line and defensive line.  Thus far, anyways.

By retaining right tackle Phil Loadholt , backup Troy Kropog, and backup center Joe Berger the Vikings have kept intact their offensive line, with the lone exception being the currently unsigned backup guard Geoff Schwartz.  Spielman declared some time ago that continuity was of value to him on the offensive line and that philosophy shows with how today has gone.  A lack of reported interest in any free agent linemen, combined with the fact that Charlie Johnson is still on the roster, shows that the Vikings don’t appear poised to make any sweeping changes in this area.

The defensive line also had potential for movement, especially in light of the shrewd move to release Winfield, as there are a number of high paid players that are on the wrong side of thirty.  Jared Allen is in the last year of his contract and Kevin Williams is not playing at the level his current salary would typically warrant.  Still, there hasn’t even been a whisper that something could be cooking in this area, and as of right now it looks like the front four will remain unchanged.

Mind you, we aren’t even half of a day into free agency and there is still potential for movement, but it is an interesting note that nothing in this area of the roster seemed to be on the checklist for Day One of free agency.

Free agency is right around the corner and one of the biggest offseason mysteries seems to now be resolved.

The NFL Players Association has notified NFL agents that the 2013 salary cap is to be at exactly $123 million, which is only a 1.7% increase from last year.  The formulas, accounting, nuances, and calculations that go into figuring out salary caps is a bear, but 1500 ESPN‘s Tom Pelissero has enough general details to give us an idea of where the Vikings stand.

The salaries that count against the cap are the accumulation of the top 51 salaries on the roster.  That is important to keep in mind, as often fans think signing street free agents or undrafted rookies is a waste of cap space when they may not actually count against the cap at all.

The cap is set at $123 million and the Vikings have $118 committed to their top 51 contracts, which leaves about $5 million left over.  However, a few factors are going to boost that number.  They have about half a million, actually just a little under, of dead money charged against them.

First, the Vikings received a $1.643 cap credit as a result of last offseason’s penalties against the Redskins, Cowboys and Saints for how they conducted business during the uncapped year.  Secondly, the Vikings chose to carry over about $8 million in unused space from last season.

That means, as of today, the Vikings are expected to have about $14.2 million in cap space when free agency opens.  That number puts the Vikings a little better than average compared to the other 31 franchises and in decent shape to make a run at a player or two.

That number could actually grow significantly, as Pelissero points out, by making some moves concerning their current roster.  The team is expected to jettison wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who is owed a $2.425 million roster bonus on March 16th, which would clear about $3.25 million in additional cap space.

Also, veterans like Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, and Kevin Williams are certain to at least be approached about contract restructurings that could free up a significant amount of cash.  Jared Allen alone carries a cap number in excess of $17 million.

General Manager Rick Spielman has gone out of his way to temper the expectations of fans when it comes to free agency, claiming that the team is likely to be about as inactive as last year.  That is tough to believe when looking at the cap space available to them and some of their pressing needs.

Maybe, just maybe, the Vikings are planning to create more of a free agency stir than what is anticipated.

Of course, they may also just be trying to free up enough space to finally make Percy Harvin a happy camper.

The NFL Scouting Combine’s importance to how team’s view certain prospects can, and will, be debated until the end of time but there is little denying that it marks the beginning of the offseason.  Players, coaches, executives, and agents converge on Indianapolis and a lot of the groundwork is done over the course of the event.

The Combine is covered wall-to-wall by NFL Network and others, but I just wanted to offer up a few simple observations now that the DVR is rid of all Combine related recordings.

Alex Smith Trade:  Today, news became semi-official that the Niners will ship quarterback Alex Smith to the Chiefs in exchange for their second round pick this season and a conditional pick next season.  A number of Vikings fans have expressed interest in Smith over the last year, so this news is important in that the Smith-to-Minnesota speculation is finally dead.  Second, the move is expected to start a domino effect around the league that could see Matt Cassel playing (maybe even starting) elsewhere, could make Geno Smith and Matt Barkley fall deeper into the Draft than expected, and could set the tone for potential trades involving Matt Flynn or Nick Foles or Ryan Mallett.  Lastly, one can’t help but wonder if the Niners and their arsenal of draft picks might be interested in trading for some big names like Derrelle Revis and/or Percy Harvin.

Vikings Create An Odd Impression:  The Vikings met with a number of agents in Indianapolis, including those that represent the team’s pending free agents.  Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN recently told the Twitter world that the meeting between Vikings brass and agents were “awkward” because the team gave no indication as to their intentions or interest, but instead just asked agents where they stood in terms of money.  This sounds like Spielman just being Spielman, just trying to keep his intentions unknown, but the clock is ticking towards the beginning of free agency and the Vikings need to start taking care of some business.

Trying To Limit Winfield… Again:  Antoine Winfield was expected to be a part time player last year, and the year before that, but it just hasn’t ever happened.  Winfield has had to stay in the starting lineup due to Chris Cook’s inability to stay on the field and inconsistencies at the other starting spot.  Leslie Frazier told reporters that he wants to see Winfield play less and that makes every bit of sense, because Winfield is at his best int he nickel position and needs to take limited snaps to stay healthy.  Still, Frazier knows all too well that it is a lot easier to say than to do this, and this could be an indication that the Vikings might pull the trigger on another early cornerback in the Draft.  Dee Milliner, Johnthan Banks, Xavier Rhodes, and Desmond Trufant all deserve consideration at the #23 spot where the Vikings pick.  Frazier’s comments can also be translated to:  “We want Winfield to play part time and get paid like it.”  Winfield is expected to cost the Vikings $7.25 million in cap space this season.

Defensive Line Dominates:  This class is incredible when it comes to depth at positions along the defensive line.  I can almost guarantee there will be tackles and ends available in the second round or beyond that carry first round grades for a number of teams.  The Vikings have some needs along the defensive line, especially at defensive tackle, and if you do the math you have to figure a defensive lineman is the odds-on favorite to be the Vikings best player available when they are on the clock.  Either Kevin Williams or Jared Allen could conceivably see their future replacement drafted on day one.

Te’o Sideshow:  A lot was made of linebacker Manti Te’o’s forty time this week, but the most unattractive thing about this prospect has to be the hoards of cameras and reporters that follow him around.  The guy is a walking circus ever since his fake girlfriend story hit the internet and that can’t appeal to many teams, regardless of his perceived talent level.  Alec Ogletree, Kevin Minter, and Arthur Brown all could end up drafted ahead of Te’o who was considered a possible first overall selection just a few months ago.

Depth Creates A Buyer’s Market:  The Vikings may want to trade backwards from the 23 spot come Draft Day, in an effort to pick up more draft choices, but they may have trouble striking a deal because so many others may be looking to do the same.  It seems to be an overall consensus that this class contains enough depth that teams will feel confident that they are getting quality players in the third or fourth rounds, and those mid-round selections are going to be highly coveted.  A team that is looking to actually move forward might be able to drive the price down by talking to multiple teams and getting themselves the best deal.  Wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and defensive back all seem to be positions of particular depth in this class.

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