Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Vikings free-agency tracker …
We’re tracking all things Purple, starting with what’s already happened and projecting what needs to happen as the Vikings work their way through free agency and the rest of the offseason. Here we go:
I. WHAT HAS HAPPENED
QB Matt Cassel: Traded to Buffalo, effective Tuesday, along with a sixth-round draft pick for a fifth-rounder this year and a seventh-rounder next year.
What it means: In a perfect, uncapped NFL, the Vikings would cling to the sweet security of an intelligent, even-keeled 10-year veteran backup quarterback, especially one who already knows Norv Turner’s complex numbering system. But the reality is teams don’t always have the luxury — based on current and future cap considerations — of paying guys $4.75 million while hoping they never see the field. There is a risk to letting Cassel go, but cheaper options are available. Finding a satisfactory one is a high priority in free agency.
LG Charlie Johnson: Released Feb. 27 in a move that was expected. It saved $2.5 million against the cap, but wasn’t a cap decision. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was reluctant to re-sign Johnson a year ago and his hesitancy proved to be warranted.
What it means: With veteran backup Joe Berger entering free agency, it means the Vikings don’t have a satisfactory option for a starting left guard. That has to change in free agency.
II. WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
1, Sign a No. 2 quarterback: Former Giants and Browns General Manager Ernie Accorsi used to always say, “The backup quarterback is the second most important player on your team.” He had the scar tissue to prove it.
In 1988, Accorsi’s Browns had to start four different quarterbacks to get through a 10-6 playoff season. It got so bad that Ernie had to talk former Dolphins backup Don Strock off the beach and out of retirement to come and start two games at the end of the season. The sight of the deeply-tanned Strock starting a playoff loss in the snow at Cleveland Stadium probably stuck with Accorsi until his retirement years later.
The Vikings saved $4.75 million and picked up some draft capital by trading Cassel to the Bills. They also gave up a ton of comfort that needs to be recaptured pronto. Someone already schooled in Turner’s system – like Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer – would be preferable, but not mandatory considering Turner’s ability to coach.
Those who don’t think this is Priority No. 1 should remember that Teddy Bridgewater was injured while making his NFL starting debut. It was a great rookie debut that he won. But he also missed the next game, a Thursday nighter four days later, because of injury. Christian Ponder sealed his future – or lack thereof – with the Vikings with a woeful performance in that loss at Green Bay.
The Vikings have had to use three starting QBs in each of the past two seasons. So only a fool would bank on Bridgewater or almost any other quarterback starting all 16 games.
2, Find a starting left guard: If there’s one priority that would rank ahead of backup QB, this is it. The idea is to come out of free agency and head into the draft with a team you’d be satisfied playing a game with. Right now, the Vikings don’t have a left guard that fits that description. David Yankey could become that guy. But that’s not good enough. The Vikings might be willing to spend big here because of the impact that an elite player could bring to this particular position. A player like San Francisco’s Mike Iupati not only brings a young, Pro Bowl-caliber player at left guard. He’d also help left tackle Matt Kalil settle back in as a reliable left tackle. Johnson lacked the strength to maintain the pocket against defensive ends that used inside moves. A solid presence at left guard would help stabilize Kalil and obviously help Bridgewater as well.
3, Add a middle linebacker: Underrated Audie Cole has come through in a pinch enough times at multiple linebacker positions to provide a certain level of comfort if the Vikings had to start him in the middle. He also could become a starter on the outside if the Vikings move on from Chad Greenway. However, with a weak linebacker draft and last year’s starter, Jasper Brinkley, set to enter free agency, the Vikings at least need to come out of free agency with another option to compete at middle linebacker. Until a young, dynamic three-down middle backer can be found via the draft – unlikely this year – the Vikings might best be served by bringing Jasper Brinkley back to fill a more limited role again this year.
4, Search hard for that elusive No. 1-type WR: This feels high on the list for free agency considering the world’s 6.2 billion mock drafts all have the Vikings taking one of the top two or three receivers available with the 11th pick in the draft. But perhaps you’ve noticed – or maybe not – that roughly 6.2 billion mock drafts tend to be wrong every spring. So the Vikings need to at least explore the possibilities for a prototypical No. 1-type receiver. They have enough Nos. 2-4-caliber wideouts that they don’t have to approach free agency in desperation mode, as they did when they overpaid to secure Greg Jennings two years ago. What’s needed is a big, fast receiver who can catch the ball and not be a pain in everybody’s backside. They’re tough to find and they’re a lot more expensive via free agency than the draft. And you better not whiff in free agency or your salary cap will be affected for years to come.
5, Keep looking for an upgrade at strong safety: The Vikings tried to upgrade this position in free agency a year ago, but failed with Kurt Coleman. They got desperate in training camp and signed Chris Crocker, only to release him and settle for Robert Blanton, a player with durability issues that visibly annoyed coach Mike Zimmer. Blanton played every snap of the first 12 games. But an injury late in the 13th game caused him to miss a game. Once healthy, he lost his starting job to Andrew Sendejo, further solidifying the belief that Blanton and Sendejo are only stopgaps alongside free safety Harrison Smith. And Antone Exum needs more time to develop before he’s even considered as a potential starter.
6, Once again, more cornerbacks needed: The Vikings are getting better at finding talented cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes has a Pro Bowl and possibly All-Pro ceiling. However, the Vikings are still struggling when it comes to finding enough corners to win a fight with Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings admitted that Captain Munnerlyn is better suited as an inside nickel back in passing situations. So that means they’re looking for a starter. But Josh Robinson, while improving, still hasn’t proven himself worthy of becoming a trusted starter. The Vikings would be wise to explore the cornerback market in free agency and the draft as well.
7, Find a left end for D-line rotation: Brian Robison is on the wrong side of 30, Corey Wootton is a free agent and who knows what to expect of 2014 rookie Scott Crichton, who had an invisible season. Depth was a huge part of the D-line’s turnaround last year. Time to restock the shelves.
8, While you’re at it, another DT, please: Speaking of which, Tom Johnson was exceptional and underrated in his limited role as an interior pass rusher in the sub packages. He also could play outside at end if needed. A year ago, Johnson was a free agency signing that wouldn’t have turned the head of Tom’s mom. But it was an outstanding pickup and the perfect example of what can happen when the coaching side helps the personnel side envision what it’s looking for. Another one of those under-the-radar depth signings at D-tackle – perhaps Johnson again – would be nice.
9, Remember how many holes Berger plugs: We’d compare Joe Berger to the Little Dutch Boy. But the Dutch kid only plugged one hole to save the town. Berger has his fingers set to plug all three potential holes on the interior offensive line. His primary position is center, but he can play at a winning level at both guard spots as well. The Vikings found that out again last year when right guard Brandon Fusco went down for the season in Week 3. Berger is a free agent again and needs to be re-signed or replaced. Re-signing him is the easier and most comforting solution.
10, Look for a swing tackle: Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure where to put swing tackle on the list. Or even if it belongs on the list. The Vikings believe they have something in Antonio Richardson, an undrafted rookie a year ago. And they like Carter Bykowski. And restricted free agent Mike Harris did OK stepping in for the injured Phil Loadholt for an extended period last season. Richardson looks the part, so if his knees hold up – a big if – and he keeps getting in shape, maybe he’s a find. Don’t know anything about Bykowski, a late-season pickup, and Harris has promise. But given last year’s struggles with Loadholt’s injury and Matt Kalil’s ineffectiveness, it wouldn’t hurt to snoop around some more seasoned tackles in free agency.
10b, Don’t forget your long snapper: We’ll sneak long snapper in here before we wrap it up. After all, you never really understand the importance of a long snapper until you suffer a game-losing safety in the closing minutes in Miami. Cullen Loeffler is set to enter free agency so, currently, the Vikings don’t have a long snapper. The Dolphins game doesn’t help Loeffler, but his overall body of work over 11 seasons could earn him a 12th year in Minnesota.
Other potential needs: A, Not sure you’ve heard, but Adrian Peterson’s situation is a little murky. If he’s not coming back, it obviously changes things. The Vikings could dip into free agency for the right price and age if that’s the case. The team has said it wouldn’t do that, but in case you haven’t noticed, transparency in the NFL is in short supply this time of year. B, If Greenway’s well-publicized acceptance of another pay cut causes the Vikings to overstep into a disrespectful lowball offer, Greenway could be cut. Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole are in place to fight for the potential opening, but the Vikings also would need to explore veteran alternatives in free agency. C, Lost in the fixation on Peterson’s $12.5 cap figure is the Jennings’ $11 million cap figure. Let’s be honest. Jennings came here for the money. It’s hard to picture him giving it back. The Vikings probably have to hang on to that cap figure until a better option is obtained. If one is found, Jennings could be cut. And that would create the need for more depth at receiver.
It’s been a few weeks since I last did a mailbag, and with the official start of free agency a few days away, today seemed like a great day to reach out to my friends on Twitter for some questions.
Of course, not long after I asked for some, our friends at the Chicago Tribune reported that the Bears were shopping wide receiver Brandon Marshall. So that led to roughly 4,000 variations of “Is Brandon Marshall going to be a Viking?” This attempt at getting an answer was easily my favorite.
So since Marshall is #trending on social media, I’ll start with a quick take on him before digging into some more pertinent questions as the Vikings prepare for free agency to open Tuesday.
@mattvensel What draft pick would you give for Marshall?
— kyle (@kstroud87) March 5, 2015
While Brandon Marshall is still a productive player at age 30, particularly when playing the Vikings, I don’t think it would make much sense for the Vikings to try to acquire him through a trade. For starters, they aren’t a player away from contending, so giving up draft picks and paying Marshall the big bucks due on his contract would be too costly for this rebuilding team. That’s just my opinion. Maybe the Vikings will think differently. Plus, Marshall has a history of wearing out his welcome wherever he plays. With head coach Mike Zimmer trying to change the culture inside Winter Park, bringing in a potentially disruptive player in Marshall could present more challenges.
@mattvensel Any vets on the chopping block before FA starts?
— Rob Newinski (@MauerMVP) March 5, 2015
We’ve already seen the Vikings part ways with two veterans. Guard Charlie Johnson was due to make $2.5 million, but his release had more to do with his performance than the money. The trade of quarterback Matt Cassel to the Bills freed up another $4.75 million, plus the Vikings scored some draft assets. The two players left to keep an eye on are outside linebacker Chad Greenway and wide receiver Greg Jennings. GM Rick Spielman said Monday that the Vikings want Greenway to finish his career with the Vikings, but there is no way he returns at his current salary. I would like to think that if the Vikings choose to cut Greenway, they would do it this weekend so he gets a chance to get the best deal possible. He has earned that kind of treatment with his play on the field and his class and generosity off of it. As for Jennings, I would be a little surprised if he was flat-out released. But his $11 million cap hit does not match his production, so it would make sense for the Vikings to approach him at some point about bringing his salary in line with his play.
@mattvensel any news on Tom Johnson re-signing?
— BITW (@BITWLFC33) March 5, 2015
Last time I checked in about Johnson, I was told that he was prepared to test the open market and see if he could get the multi-year contract, salary and role he covets, though he doesn’t necessarily need to start. This is how business is typically done with lower-tier free agents such as Johnson, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and reserve guard Joe Berger. The Vikings have talked to their agents about coming back, but they might not be able to find middle ground until the frenzied first few days of free agency go down and the marquee free agents sign and set the market. For what it’s worth, I still think Johnson coming back to Minnesota makes the most sense for both parties. The journeyman defensive tackle had a career year under Zimmer in 2014 and the Vikings could really use another season of that kind of production from Johnson as a sub-package interior pass rusher.
@mattvensel Any FA LBs make sense for Zim?
— NFC North Bar Room (@AldoBarkeeper) March 5, 2015
Zimmer is on the record as saying that he doesn’t think this is a particularly good class of free-agent middle linebackers (he said the same thing about the draft, too). Now Zimmer doesn’t think it’s absolutely necessary to find a middle linebacker who can play all three downs, but it certainly is his preference. One name to remember is Rey Maualuga, who was a solid but unspectacular player for Zimmer in Cincinnati. Maualuga started at middle linebacker for the Bengals and was at times an every-down defender for Zimmer. He’s not great in coverage by any stretch, but he would be an upgrade over Jasper Brinkley in that area. At what cost, though? If the Vikings are just looking for a two-down thumper, it might make more sense to bring back Brinkley to be a part-time player. Another name to remember is Mason Foster, who flashed three-down potential for the Buccaneers before Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier brought the Tampa Two defense back to Tampa Bay in 2014.
UPDATE: Not long after I posted this mailbag, the Bengals announced that they have re-signed Maualuga to a three-year deal. So disregard everything I just wrote about him.
@mattvensel Where do the Vikings go for a running back if AP is moved? Draft or free agency?
— Lane Goos (@LaneGoos) March 5, 2015
I wrote at length about the offseason plan at running back a couple of weeks ago, so I kindly ask you to click this link and give it a read. But to give you the Cliff’s Notes version, the Vikings don’t plan on spending for a free-agent running back. Instead, they will look to find another running back in the draft. The question is, will that player ending up spelling Adrian Peterson or replacing him?
@mattvensel Are the vikings better off picking a CB, WR, or OL with the #11 pick?
— Michael Rivers (@logansdad34) March 5, 2015
It’s fun to think ahead to the draft, and I’m certainly guilty of it, too. But we won’t get a good idea of which direction the Vikings might go with their first-round pick until after the first few weeks of free agency. I agree that right now the offensive line, wide receiver and cornerback are probably the team’s biggest needs. But if the Vikings make a splash with a free-agent signing like, say, Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati, suddenly the line will become a lower priority. All that said, the Vikings pick 11th overall. When you’re drafting that high, you should probably take a best-player-available approach unless you have two similarly-graded players and one of them plays a need position.
Vikings General Manger Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer met with running back Adrian Peterson at his Houston home a little after noon today.
You’ve probably watched the video by now. Peterson shook Spielman’s hand and pulled him in for a quick hug and then did the same with Zimmer before welcoming them into his home to chat.
The meeting, believed to be Spielman and Zimmer’s first face-to-face sit-down with Peterson since he was suspended by the NFL in November, lasted four hours.
While Vikings officials and sources close to Peterson have not yet revealed what exactly was said during that meeting, Peterson said in a statement that he thought the conversation went well.
“I appreciate Rick and Coach Zimmer coming down to see me today,” Peterson said in the statement. “We had a great dialogue and they were able to understand where I was coming from and concerns my family and I still have. We respect each other and hopefully the situation can pan out so that everyone involved is content.”
The Vikings have agreed to trade backup quarterback Matt Cassel to the Buffalo Bills.
This time a year ago, the Vikings re-signed Cassel to a two-year contract so the veteran could be the “bridge” to their quarterback of the future. That quarterback ended up being Teddy Bridgewater, who had a promising rookie season after replacing Cassel, who fractured his foot, in Week 3.
Cassel, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve, would have been one of the league’s highest-paid backup quarterbacks in 2015. Now he will get a chance to start for the Bills, who in the past two days agreed to trade for a star running back in LeSean McCoy and a veteran QB in Cassel.
According to the Bills’ website, the Bills will send two undisclosed draft picks to the Vikings in exchange for Cassel and an undisclosed pick. The trade can’t become official until the start of the league year, so Tuesday at 3 p.m. CDT.
Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reported that Minnesota will receive a 2015 fifth-round pick and a 2016 seventh-round pick from Buffalo. The Vikings will send Cassel and a 2015 sixth-rounder to the Bills.
By trading Cassel, the Vikings will free up $4.75 million in salary cap space. As it stands now, the team will enter free agency with about $25 million in cap space.
General Manager Rick Spielman had positive things to say about Cassel when he was asked about the quarterback at the NFL scouting combine two weeks ago, but he was non-committal about his status for 2015.
“Matt’s done a great job,” Spielman said. “He came in and won some games when he had to play and he’s a great locker room guy and Matt adds a lot of value to us.”
Cassel appeared in 12 games, nine of them starts, over two seasons with the Vikings. He threw 14 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions while compiling a 4-5 record as a starter.
He edged out Bridgewater to start the 2014 opener after a solid training camp and preseason. Bridgewater likely would have replaced him eventually, but Cassel’s injury opened the door.
Now with Bridgewater locked in as the starter, Cassel was expendable. The Vikings will now presumably look for a veteran backup in free agency and possibly draft a developmental passer.
Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, along with former Vikings Tarvaris Jackson, Shaun Hill and Christian Ponder, are among the QBs scheduled to hit free agency.
I know there are more prominent matters of concern as it pertains to the Vikings beat right now. You know, like where Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman ate breakfast at MSP this morning before flying down to Texas to meet with a certain disgruntled Pro Bowl running back.
But as we wait for new developments in #PetersonWatch, I figured I’d throw up a quick block post on what Spielman had to say about compensatory picks when we talked to him the other day.
Simply put, the GM doesn’t expect the Vikings to get any compensatory picks again this year when the recipients of the 32 comp picks are announced at the owners meetings next month.
My colleague Mark Craig wrote an informative piece on comp picks last year. One tidbit from that: In two decades, the Vikings have only received 16 of them and haven’t gotten one since 2012.
But why none this year? Yes, the Vikings lost a few notable unrestricted free agents last offseason, the biggest being defensive end Jared Allen. But they signed some, too, led by nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. The NFL doesn’t make its formula public, but it is based on more than just the salaries handed out, including playing time and postseason honors.
So basically all those signings will likely cancel out and the Vikings will get no extra picks.
Still, despite not getting many compensatory picks in recent years, Spielman said the Vikings keep the secret formula in mind when deciding whom to sign in the offseason. For example, players who were cut by their previous teams don’t count towards the formula.
“There’s a pretty good group of guys that are going to get cut or have been cut already,” Spielman said. “So if you can potentially fill some needs with guys getting released, that doesn’t affect potential compensatory picks the following year. You weigh [unrestricted free agents] but we also put in all the guys that are potential street free agents, and if we can go that route, we may look at that route because it could potentially help you with compensatory picks.”
I wouldn’t get your hopes up for 2016 comp picks, though.
The Vikings don’t have any higher-profile players hitting the free-agent market because they locked up guys like tight end Kyle Rudolph and right guard Brandon Fusco before the season. Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who each played less than half of the defensive snaps last season, are probably their most notable free agents.
Anyway, time to get back to refreshing Twitter in case Spielman and Zimmer stop to grab lunch.
|NY Yankees||12:05 PM|
|Los Angeles||2:05 PM|
|San Francisco||2:05 PM|
|Chicago WSox||2:05 PM|
|Kansas City||2:05 PM|
|LA Lakers||7:00 PM|
|Ark-Pine Bluff||11:00 AM|
|Miss Valley St|
|Southern Ill||12:05 PM|
|Northern Ill||6:00 PM|
|Bowling Green||6:00 PM|
|Central Mich||6:00 PM|
|Morehead State||6:30 PM|
|Coll of Charleston||7:30 PM|
|Texas Tech||8:00 PM|
|Loyola Marymount||10:30 PM|
|Saint Louis||3||1st Half 17:32|
|(21) George Washington||8|
|Wake Forest||2||1st Half 15:51|
|Furman||2||1st Half 18:18|
|Michigan State||11:30 AM|
|(3) South Carolina|
|East Tenn St|
|(2) Notre Dame|
|Washington St||1:30 PM|
|(9) Arizona State|
|Ark-Pine Bluff||1:30 PM|
|Miss Valley St|
|(23) Rutgers||1:55 PM|
|Tennessee St||2:00 PM|
|Loyola Marymount||2:00 PM|
|(18) Texas A&M||2:25 PM|
|Saint Josephs||3:30 PM|
|Santa Clara||4:30 PM|
|Virginia Tech||5:00 PM|
|(7) Florida State|
|Rhode Island||6:00 PM|
|North Florida||6:00 PM|
|(20) Fla Gulf Coast|
|Kennesaw St||6:00 PM|
|USC Upstate||6:00 PM|
|Saint Peters||6:00 PM|
|(13) Princeton||6:00 PM|
|(15) North Carolina||7:00 PM|
|San Jose St||7:00 PM|
|Utah State||8:00 PM|
|(8) Oregon State|
|New Mexico||8:00 PM|
|(12) Kentucky||8:25 PM|
|(11) Miss State|
|San Diego State||8:30 PM|
|Texas Tech||8:30 PM|
|Boise State||9:00 PM|
Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?