Second only to the NFL Draft, the first week of the league’s free agency period is one of the most exciting parts of the NFL offseason each and every year. Sometimes it works out and other times it does not for a team and their expensive new player or players.
It is always fun for fans to hope that their team goes out and signs the top available free agents, but that is not always the best strategy for their favorite team. Some fans need to be more realistic when it comes to who they think their team could sign.
When the free agency period for this upcoming NFL year begins on March 9th, there will be a few players that could land with the Vikings. Who are some of the more realistic options in free agency that could fit with the team in Minnesota?
Marvin Jones, WR
2015 Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Estimated 2016 Value: $5.5 million
With reports out that Alshon Jeffery is likely to re-sign with the Chicago Bears, Jones becomes one of the top available players in this offseason’s relatively weak free-agent group of wide receivers. The 25-year-old Jones has spent his entire four year NFL career in Cincinnati with the Bengals and his 103 targets in 2015 were good enough for second on the team behind fellow wide receiver A.J. Green.
Jones is coming off of a season where he finished with career highs in targets, catches (65), and receiving yards (816). Listed at 6’2″, his height could provide the Vikings offense with a potential downfield threat and another big target when Minnesota finds itself in the redone.
If the Vikings were able to lure Jones to the Twin Cities, it would likely spell the end of Charles Johnson’s career as a wide receiver in Minnesota. Jones has a similar build and skill set as Johnson, but Jones has proven to be more reliable and productive when called upon to perform.
Jermaine Kearse, WR
2015 Team: Seattle Seahawks
Estimated 2016 Value: $4.7 million
A decision to pursue Kearse could depend on what the Vikings do with a current overpriced wide receiver in Mike Wallace this offseason. Wallace is due $11.45 million in 2016 and based on his performance last season (a career worst), there is no way he should remain in Minnesota with his current salary.
Wallace’s salary for the next two years is not guaranteed so, if they wanted to, the Vikings could just release the wide receiver without owing him a penny. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer expressed his admiration for Wallace and his attitude after the 2015 season and this could lead to the team trying to keep the receiver, but at a much a cheaper price.
If the Vikings and Wallace are unable to come to an agreement on a contract restructure, the result could end up on the team deciding to part ways with him. Minnesota would then have a need for a receiver to take the place that a Wallace departure would open.
If the Vikings cannot find a player on their current roster to fill Wallace’s spot then they may look to free agency instead. Kearse could potentially be a great fit for what this offense and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater are trying to accomplish in the near future with a system more focused around passing.
With 49 catches for 685 yards and five touchdowns, Kearse is coming off of a career year and his statistics have improved in each of his four seasons in the NFL. At 6’1″, 212 pounds, Kearse has the abilities to both make plays after the catch and stretch the field as a deep threat.
Travis Benjamin, WR/PR
2015 Team: Cleveland Browns
Estimated 2016 Value: $4.3 million
The past five seasons, Minnesota has had the same player returning punts in defensive back Marcus Sherels. He finished second in the league in 2013 with an average of 15.2 yards per punt return.
However, 2013 was the only one of Sherels’ five seasons returning punts that he finished among the league’s top five in that category. Additionally, Sherels has only finished in the top ten in that category in two of his five seasons.
The Vikings and Zimmer take pride in excelling in all three phases of football (offense, defense, special teams), so is it time for the team to sign a player that could greatly improve their punt return unit? Sherels is a free agent this offseason and this may be the season in which Minnesota finally decides not to bring him back to play for his hometown team.
Who could replace him? There may be a player on their current roster that could take over the team’s punt return duties, but the Vikings could choose to spend their money this offseason on a playmaking punt returner in Travis Benjamin.
Benjamin has been one of the NFL’s best punt returners since he first entered the league in 2012. He finished third in the league in 2015 with a punt return average of 11.6 yards and established himself as a capable wide receiver as well (68 catches, 966 yards, 5 touchdowns).
Adding Benjamin to the team could essentially kill two birds with one stone. The Vikings would not only be getting an excellent punt returner, but also a player that caught more passes and gained more receiving yards than any player on Minnesota’s 2015 roster.
Pierre Thomas, RB
2015 Team: Washington Redskins/San Francisco 49ers
Estimated 2016 Value: Under $1 million
Why would the Vikings even consider signing a 31-year-old running back who has only played in five games last season? What Thomas can bring to the team that is outside of the stats sheet should be a reason why Minnesota should consider signing the former New Orleans Saint this offseason.
Thomas was a member of the Saints 2009 team that won that season’s Super Bowl. He knows what it takes for a team to get over the hump and become a serious Super Bowl contender.
What Terence Newman’s veteran presence brought to the Vikings defense last season, and perhaps next season, is what Thomas could potentially bring to the team’s offense in 2016. If Minnesota were to sign Thomas, current Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon would have a better example than Peterson to learn from as Thomas has proven to be an exceptional receiver (77 catches in 2013) and pass blocker during his career.
The Vikings could end up just choosing to bring back running back Matt Asiata this offseason. But if they do not, Thomas would be a more than capable replacement
Mitchell Schwartz, RT
2015 Team: Cleveland Browns
Estimated 2016 Value: $6 Million
No unit has struggled more for Minnesota in the past two seasons than their offensive line. Giving up 45 or more sacks in the last two years is nowhere close to the type of line the Vikings need in order to protect their franchise quarterback.
Zimmer has already begun to make changes to the line by not renewing the contract of Jeff Davidson who had coached the unit since 2011. Minnesota has brought in former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano to attempt at fixing the disaster that is the Vikings offensive line.
Minnesota’s first task in trying to bolster their line should be to focus on improving the right side of the unit. As of right now, the Vikings will return Phil Loadholt and T.J. Clemmings as their right tackles in 2016.
Loadholt is 30-years-old and has missed 21 games in the past two seasons due to injury, including all of the 2015 season with a torn Achilles. With Loadholt carrying a cap hit of $7.75 million for 2016, it would not come as a surprise if Minnesota decides to release their injury prone right tackle.
If that happens, then the Vikings will be left with Clemmings as the best option for right tackle left on their roster. Based on Clemmings rookie season in 2015, it might be a better idea for Minnesota to go searching for a veteran free-agent right tackle
Adding Schwartz to their roster would be a big pickup for the Vikings and automatically improve the right side of their offensive line. Schwartz is just coming into his prime as player in this league and was already given the title as the NFL’s best right tackle by Pro Football Focus in 2015.
If Minnesota is going to spend a ton of money on a free-agent his offseason, spending it on Schwartz would be wise. Plus, knowing that Schwartz is blocking for him could help Teddy develop a normal breathing pattern during games and prevent him from trying to throw passes with his left hand.
Kelechi Osemele, G/T
2015 Team: Baltimore Ravens
Estimated 2016 Value: $7 million
Injuries decimated the Vikings offensive line in 2015 and likely played a big part in their lack of success. They have hired a new coach in Sparano to coach the line, so a few changes to their personnel for next season would not come as a surprise.
Osemele is a unique player in that he is an athletic offensive linemen with the ability to play a majority of positions. He began his career with the Ravens as a tackle and was later switched to guard, where he played the last three seasons.
With his 6’5″, 333 pound frame, he would fit in nicely next to the Vikings current left tackle in Matt Kalil. If Minnesota were able sign Osemele and plug him in as their starting left guard, it would possibly allow current Vikings lineman Brandon Fusco to return to his natural position at right guard.
Shane Lechler, P
2015 Team: Houston Texans
Estimated 2016 Value: $1.5 million
Not sure if it is stating the obvious, but Minnesota punter Jeff Locke is not what one would say, good. Actually he was the absolute worst punter in the entire NFL last season in terms of average yards per punt.
Locke has left the Vikings with almost no choice but than to bring in another punter to compete for the starting job in 2016. Lechler has proven time and time again to be one of the league’s best punters and even ranked fifth in the NFL in 2015 in yards per punt.
39-year-old players are usually not on a team’s list for top free agent targets, but they are when your 26-year-old punter cannot get the job done.