Who’s Next on the Free Agent List for Vikings?

Rick Spielman
Jul 28, 2018; Eagan, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman watches practice at Vikings training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings reportedly fixed a longstanding roster deficiency on Saturday, agreeing to terms with free-agent WR Dede Westbrook.

Not since Jarius Wright, who left the team after the memorable 2017 season, have the Vikings employed a sure-fire WR3 that produces at a consistent level. With the Westbrook addition and a clean bill of health, that should change in 2021.

Before the Westbrook acquisition, Minnesota holstered about $13.5 million in cap space. That figure should settle around $12 million by the time training camp starts on Wednesday in Eagan.

So, if the Vikings decide not to immediately lengthen the contracts of Harrison Smith and Brian O’Neill — two men theorized at the top of the priority list for extensions — who’s next for free-agent signings?

Defensive End

Everson Griffen departed the franchise after 2019 while Danielle Hunter missed all of 2020 to injury. Put bluntly, the pass rush was morbid — last in the NFL, in fact, per Pro Football Focus

The EDGE rusher spot opposite Danielle Hunter remains the singular question mark on general manager Rick Spielman’s revamped roster (well, maybe kicker, too, but Vikings fans are accustomed to that).

Three starting-caliber defends ends currently live on the free-agency waiver wire: Justin Houston, Everson Griffen, and Olivier Vernon

Houston is a 32-year-old, battle-tested sack machine, accruing 97.5 sacks in 134 career games. He most recently played for the Indianapolis Colts, a team that utilizes a 4-3 defensive scheme as do the Vikings. His lack of attention in free agency is puzzling, leaving the ex-Kansas City Chief available for the taking by any NFL team.

For the Vikings, he could start instantly.

So could Everson Griffen. He needs very little commentary because the USC alumnus spent a decade in Minnesota. He’s even the franchise’s seventh-best sack merchant of all-time, tallying 74.5 sacks with the Vikings from 2010 to 2019.

Olivier Vernon had a terrific season with the Cleveland Browns but will attempt to regain his footing in 2021 somewhere after a late-season Achilles’ tendon tear in January. If signed by Spielman, Vernon would reunite with Sheldon Richardson, a defensive tackle signed by the Vikings in June. Richardson spent two seasons in Cleveland with Vernon.

Offensive Line

This one is less sexy.

The Vikings impressively built an offensive line on a backbone of youth from Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, Christian Darrisaw, to Wyatt Davis. And that’s the byproduct of four consecutive NFL drafts.

Still, the team could afford to sign one more veteran backup guard or tackle. The sole bane of the Mike Zimmer era is a steady lack of pass protection. In stretches, the Vikings offensive line executes decent protection for Kirk Cousins (or Case Keenum before him), but those occasions are merely glimpses.

Spielman traded a 6th-Round pick for Mason Cole this spring, a center-guard who will probably be used as a reservist player along the offensive trenches.

But if the Vikings want to fortify OL depth, players like Nick Easton, James Carpenter, Mike Iupati, and J.R. Sweezy are unsigned.

Zane Gonzalez

It would not be out of the realm of possibility that the Vikings proposed kicker solution of Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson underwhelms in the preseason — it’s happened before for Mike Zimmer and kickers.

Zane Gonzalez, formerly “the guy” for the Arizona Cardinals, injured his back in late 2020, but he is a free agent right now. He would add instant name recognition to the Vikings special teams, although name recognition didn’t wholly solve the kicking woes during the last adventure with Dan Bailey.

In the last half-decade, the Vikings are the NFL’s worst extra-point kicking team (88.4%). Gonzalez has “only” missed two extra points since 2019. His north-of 97% extra-points success rate would be a welcome sight in Minnesota.

Then, Gonzalez converted 82.4% of fields goals with the Cardinals since the start of 2019, which isn’t otherworldly but also isn’t bad. He’s got a big leg, too. His range is around 55 to 56 yards per career-long field goals.

In 2019, Gonzalez’s last full season, he ranked fourth in the league for points scored.