2014 Team Needs: Minnesota Vikings
Just one year removed from the playoffs, the Minnesota Vikings disappointed in 2013. Mired by inconsistency at quarterback and a struggling pass defense, they parted ways with much of the coaching staff and turned to Mike Zimmer as their new head coach.
General Manager Rick Spielman will once again be searching for a franchise quarterback but will also have plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball. Spielman will look to do most of the upgrading through the Vikings’ eight draft picks, but their cap space and the pressure for a quick turnaround could mean a couple significant free agency signings as well.
Potential Cap Casualties
The Vikings should be pretty comfortable with $28.7 million in available cap space (per overthecap.com) and they would likely be fine without making any cuts. If they are looking to open up some more cap room though, there are a couple options available to them.
– Chad Greenway is coming off his worst year as a pro and just turned 31. He has an $8.2 million cap hit and his release would provide a net savings of $4.8 million. With their lack of depth at linebacker already, a restructure may be the better option if the Vikings feel it was just a one year dip.
– Letroy Guion hasn’t been much more than a backup during his six years in Minnesota, and a below-average one in the Vikings’ system. His $4.3 million cap number would be almost entirely savings and is too much to pay a part-time player.
– John Carlson is set to count $17 million against the cap over the next three seasons. While they would only save $2 million this season (another $9 million over the final two years), he is the clear No. 2 tight end when Kyle Rudolph is healthy.
Without question, the quarterback position is the biggest concern for the Vikings. Christian Ponder (-10.8) doesn’t seem to be in the team’s plans going forward and will likely be at the bottom of the depth chart even with his fully guaranteed salary. The Josh Freeman (-10.8) experiment didn’t work in the one opportunity that he was thrust into. Matt Cassel (-5.2) was their best option last year but the coaching staff never seemed to fully support the quarterback as they repeatedly turned to Ponder every time he was able to return to full health.
Free agent fix: Draft. There’s not a franchise quarterback available in the free agent pool unless the Vikings consider Freeman to be an option, which seems unlikely after his brief stint in Minnesota. If the Vikings cannot find their guy in the draft, re-signing Cassel looks to be their best option in free agency. Cassel isn’t a long-term solution by any means, but the Vikings could do worse as a one year stop-gap. At times Cassel looked good last year, and with the support of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, he may be able to improve his consistency.
The Vikings locked up Brian Robison with a contract extension last fall, who will continue to hold down one defensive end position. With Jared Allen now a free agent, it is time to move on from the aging veteran. Allen posted reasonable pass rush numbers, largely due to his high number of snaps. However, he graded 34th out of 52 4-3 DEs overall and struggled to make an impact when going against good left tackles. The right DE spot is vacated for the first time since 2007 and the Vikings need to replace Allen on a defense that largely lacks playmakers. Fellow DE Everson Griffen would probably be Allen’s natural successor but he too, is set to be a free agent. Griffen’s role continued to increase as he set career-highs in snaps played and overall grade (+4.7), not too far behind Robison.
Free agent fix: Re-signing Griffen would be the logical call here. He has played well enough against both the run and the pass to become a starter and his flexibility to play inside would be an added value. However, another sound fit is someone that new head coach Mike Zimmer knows very well in former Bengal Michael Johnson. Johnson is familiar with Zimmer’s system and is a proven fit. His play defending the run has been one of the best, grading out as the second-best 4-3 DE against the run last season and well above any season for Allen. He can be an inconsistent pass rusher, but has shown above-average ability.
It’s unlikely that Greenway will be cut but it’s clear that Minnesota needs help from at least the other linebacker positions. The Vikings have been looking for a starting-caliber middle linebacker ever since E.J. Henderson’s retirement. His younger brother, Erin Henderson, tried to move inside last year but it didn’t work out as well as was hoped and now he has been shown the door. Other veterans Marvin Mitchell and Desmond Bishop are also free agents and seem unlikely to return. Second-year MLB Audie Cole showed some promise when he filled in at end of the year. He was fluid in coverage (+3.5), but less effective against the run (-5.2). The Vikings also have last years’ fourth and seventh round draft picks Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, respectively, but each played just a handful of snaps as rookies.
Free agent fix: Even though they have a few young options in house, it would be smart to address the position again in May’s draft to build depth. In addition, another veteran player alongside Greenway would give the linebacker corps some much needed game experience. Bringing back Bishop could provide the Vikings with flexibility as to where to play him, but they need someone they can count on to be on the field with less of an injury history.
Signing Akeem Jordan would give them depth and versatility. He has experience playing inside in Kansas City as well as both strong and weakside linebacker in Philadelphia. Jordan’s strength is defending the run (ranked fifth with a 12.5% Run Stop Percentage) and he’s not a liability in coverage either (allowed one reception for every 18.2 snaps in coverage, best for ILBs). Don’t rule out Zimmer pursuing former pupil Vincent Rey either. Rey is a restricted free agent that the Bengals may not let follow his former coach though.
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