Free AgencyOpinion

Rick Spielman Building a Homegrown Contender

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:

[quote_box_center]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.[/quote_box_center]

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.





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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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  1. We better get serious about drafting OL. Need young cheap talent if we are going to afford the coming of age of our existing roster. Can’t afford the most expensive OL in NFL in years to come.

  2. I like the team retaining their own, while making additions that make sense. I prefer the era before free agency where you could build strong teams within, but in this era you have brief windows with strong teams before needing to make personnel changes due to the salary cap (the Steelers teams in the 70’s would have been very difficult to have been built and retained in this era).

    The Vikings seem to be in a window now where the majority of their top players, primarily on defense and at QB, are in their rookie contracts. To maintain a strong team moving forward, the OL will need to be worked out, hopefully getting stronger and a bit cheaper (get some solid players in the next 1-2 years in their rookie contract), and look to draft a RB in the 2017 draft to eventually take over for Adrian. These moves will lower cost in one area while hopefully retaining a core group of players once their rookie contracts are up.

    1. You are right! They did not; I was trying to convey that their contributions came over the course of the season, but I worded it wrong. Thanks for catching that

  3. “He’s molding his team for the future, and he’s doing so in an affordable, sensible way. ”

    How can it be considered molding the team for the future when it’s almost all 1 year deals? It’s a weird way to build a team. Of their top 8 offensive linemen, Kalil, Boone, Sullivan, Berger, Fusco, Harris, Loadholt, and Smith, how many, individually, would it be surprisingly if next year at this time they’re not on the team? Because I count 7, 5 who’s deals are up, and 2 who are coming back from year long injuries. Not saying all 7 will be gone, that would be surprising, but any of those 7 could be gone without me raising an eyebrow. That’s building for the future?

    Seems to me you should either go after solid young players and sign them to a longer term deals, or if you think you’re close, go for the very good, but older, players at their position and sign them to short contract, with a splurge here or there with a big contract. With the exception of Boone, Rick seemed to go after mediocre guys and give them short contracts. Seems like an odd strategy for a team that is close. That’s more what I would expect of a team rebuilding, get by for now while trying to pile up draft pick who will eventually take over those jobs.

    1. Behind the offensive linemen you named the Vikes have a raft of youngsters: Clemmings, Shepherd, Sirles, Bykowski, Easton and Kerin. The first two got valuable experience during the 2015 season, Speilman traded for Sirles and re-signed Bykowski, and the last two impressed during the 2015 pre-season. The veterans ensure competition for starting positions and at least some degree of continuity and familiarity while allowing the coaches to determine if the “kids” or any new draftees or CFA’s have a future with the team.

      I am by no means a Spielman apologist, but would you have had him blow up the offensive line? Sullivan, Fusco and Loadholt were all “solid young players [signed to] longer term deals” working on or finishing those deals, Kalil is in the last year of his rookie contract, and Berger is a veteran back-up in the last year of a two-year contract who started, and played well, all of last year. Like the first three, Boone is a solid young player signed to a long-term deal. Injuries and Kalil being a bust aside, the OL doesn’t look all that different from the DL; in age and contract terms, Loadholt is comparable to Robison, Fusco to Griffen, Kalil to Floyd, Boone to Joseph and Berger to Johnson, The only guys on actual one-year contracts are Smith, insurance in case Loadholt’s body gives out, and Harris, who I think should have been signed to a long-term deal but responded to Speilman’s low-ball offer and signing of Boone by shopping himself around and getting more money and the chance to get a long-term deal after next season.

      The coaches clearly aren’t sold on Clemmings as the RT of the future, but Speilman has done a pretty good job of giving Zimmer, Turner and Sparano an OL that they can work with in 2016 with potential replacement parts for the future.

      1. Eh, if any of those youngsters were someone we could count on, they would’ve played last year. I’m not giving up on any of them, including Clemmings, but pretending because we have some young backups we have a long term plan seems overly optimistic to me. How many teams have young backups on the o-line that they’ve given some indication they like? 32?

        I would’ve signed Harris to a longer deal, tried to extend Berger, cut Kalil, and if I had doubts that Loadholt could return (which they evidently do) would’ve given his money and Smith’s to sign a better RT rather than hope that having two questionable RTs turns in having a good RT. I’ve seen teams try that strategy, usually it ends up with them having a mediocre player starting. And maybe they tried to do some of these things. But we’ve got no choice to judge them by what they did do, not what maybe they tried.

        Maybe there were no good choices with the oline given the injuries and situation we’re in. But it’s hard for me to accept the spin that this offseason FA signings showed long term thinking that Rick should be praised for, and that goes belong the issues at o-line. The team overall seems to be stalling, just trying to patch and make it through next year. That seems like an odd choice to me, what with them having a defense that’s ready to win a championship this year, and the team still getting the benefit of not having much money tied into the QB. I’m not trying to be all Debbie-downer, I think the team should be good again next year and with a great draft could win a SB. But I’m not as high on this FA class as some seem to be, and I don’t understand the praise Spielman is getting for it. I say that despite normally being a pretty big Spielman fan.

        1. “Eh, if any of those youngsters were someone we could count on, they would’ve played last year.” Clemmings, Shepherd and Kerin were all rookies. The former started 16 games, the second came in on short yardage plays and the third is a center/guard; he wasn’t going to displace one of our two best starters – Berger and Harris – or a former starter, even if he was coming back from injury and playing out of position. Sirles, Easton and Bykowski were second-year players but Bykowski was lost for the season and the other two were new to the team and, interestingly, acquired by trade.

          Regarding the offensive line’s future, Boone and Fusco should both be in the prime of their careers. Easton and, to a lesser degree, Kerin have been discussed as Sullivan’s eventual successor at center, as he was to Matt Birk. You and I agree that Harris should have been signed for more than one year, but with him, Clemmings and Shepherd on the roster, I can understand not investing in another young option at right tackle. The real question for the long term is at left tackle. Do they think that Kalil’s career can be resurrected? Is there a potential replacement currently on the roster? If not, do they spend a high draft pick on one? Personally, I’m all for trading for Joe Thomas and drafting a LT project, but I could live with drafting someone who could potentially replace Kalil in 2017.

          Boone and Sendejo (head-scratchingly) were the only long-term contract signings, but the free agent class was exceedingly thin at wide receiver and the best young safety, George Iloka, was an unlikely get. The other signings allow us to get through next year in good if not massively improved shape and give young guys like Trey Waynes, Audie Cole, Anthony Harris and Antone Exum a chance to prove themselves. Another young nose tackle and cornerback would be among my targets in the draft and I’d spend the second round pick to sign restricted free agent wide receiver Kamar Aiken away from Baltimore, but Slick Rick isn’t exactly beating my door down for advise.

  4. Personally I would like to see them offer their first round pick to the Brown’s for Joe Thomas. Just read an article that he would like to be traded and he would certainly be more valuable than a WR from this year’s weak receiver draft class. With him on the left with Boone, Sully or Berger in the middle, Harris at RG and Andre Smith at RT, would be a heck of a line. Very good depth with Fusco, Loadholt, Clemmings , Bykowski, Easton… Berger if Sully can fully recover. I don’t know if they can cut Kalil now without taking a big cap hit though. But still would rather a quality LT than the big question mark they have there now. Anyone else think it strange that they brought in so many lineman with right side experience and not one to compete with Kalil?

    1. I would also love to see it, although to answer your question all of Kalil’s 11 mil is guaranteed so if they traded for Thomas they would have to convince the Browns to take Kalil as part of the deal (or convince someone else to trade for him). But yeah, I find it very strange that with all the o-line signings none are to compete with Kalil. Unless Arif is right that maybe Smith was actually brought in as a potential LT.

      1. Thanks sandbun! So if they were to cut him before the start of the season he would still get his 11 mil and it would also count against the cap?

          1. Well, no question then. We know that Kalil will be given one last chance. Perhaps they have a plan with the players they have now if Kalil does not improve upon last year. There is no way that any team will trade for him with that much money due. It doesn’t seem to me that there will be a LT available at 23 that will be ready to start at the beginning of the next season. The draft likely won’t be a solution for LT. I would like to see them take Conklin, but every mock I have seen has him the 3rd taken and also gone by 15. No need to think about Whitehair now, they are now covered at guard.

    2. I’m waiting to see what happens in the draft.Boone played LT last year,so maybe if there is a guard on the board in the early rounds Rick could take him.Then if Kalil is struggling,Boone could slide over to LT and the rookie or Berger could play LG.
      All just speculation at the moment.

      1. Good point Aussie, but I am thinking that they are not too worried about either guard position now, but that certainly does not mean that they won’t take one. I have noticed that Whitehair has fallen on many boards after the combine, but not all of them. Unless Fusco has completely tanked and does not flash again on the right. Harris, Boone, Fusco. I know that Berger has been a depth guy prior to last year, but he did play very well at center, perhaps he has improved to starting quality (?). Nonetheless, they might be fairly strong and deep at both guard positions. I did not know that Boone had also played LT last year. I would think that he will be motivated just due to being away from the train wreck that is now the 49ers.