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.
Wednesday, we took a look at three of one man’s the many, many, many “Don’ts” in NFL free agency. (Never been a big fan of celebrating free agency’s big spenders, labeling them “winners” when they always seem to turn into regular season losers. Can I get an “Amen,” Daniel Snyder?!)
Today, let’s look at three of the “Do’s.”
Free agency Do No. 1:Fill in the holes to improve draft strategy.
A forgotten detail in the Great Christian Ponder Draft Reach of 2011 is the NFL was in the midst of a lockout. There was no free agency leading up to the draft. Brett Favre’s body and career finally was kaput. Tarvaris Jackson was a free agent. And, well, GM Rick Spielman thought it might be a good idea to field a team with a quarterback. So the Vikings took what they could with the 12th overall pick. And, remember, right after the draft, the lockout went back into effect. So at the time of the Ponder pick, no one knew what was going to happen with free agency. As it turned out, the Vikings signed Donovan McNabb. Or what little was left of him.
In a normal year, teams should use free agency to fill every hole with at least an acceptable starter or someone to compete for the position. The players don’t have to be superstars or even survive a competitive training camp (see: Derek Cox, Zack Bowman, Chris Carr). They just have to be there so that the team doesn’t have to reach on a draft pick based on position only.
The new CBA has made it easier to spend money in free agency. There’s a rookie salary cap, leftover room from past years can roll over and the cap keeps climbing significantly. This year, it’s expected to be above $140 million. The Vikings, even with Adrian Peterson counting $15.4 million, are about $18 million under the cap, and that could grow.
The Vikings’ top holes — not necessarily top needs — are left guard, middle linebacker, strong safety and cornerback. They do need an elite, big receiver who can run, catch and not be a high-maintenance jerk. But that’s not so much a hole as it is a more selective need.
Free agency “Do’s” No. 2: Need a lineman, get a lineman.
A small percentage of college linemen are able to make an immediate transition to NFL starter. Heck, the Vikings loved David Yankee a year ago when they got him in the fifth round, but found out he’d have to essentially red-shirt a full year before being strong enough to see the field for even one snap.
Yankee could be the answer at left guard. But no one wants to bet Teddy Bridgewater’s health on that. So even if the Vikings are targeting Iowa guard Brandon Scherff with the 11th overall pick, the Vikings still need to sign a capable starting left guard in free agency and let him compete with Yankee, Joe Berger and, who knows, maybe Scherff.
There are some guards out there. One should always keep an eye on guys with ties to the head coach or assistant coaches. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive guru, but he also knows Cincinnati guard Clint Boling from their time together with the Bengals.
The Vikings don’t necessarily have needs on the defensive line. But they’d be wise to re-sign Tom Johnson. Johnson was a classic under-the-radar signing that nobody talks about but ends up helping a team. The Vikings signed him to a one-year deal long after last year’s free agency period had begun. He ended up with a career-high 6 1/2 sacks as a part-time player. I considered him the most underrated player on the team, just ahead of Berger.
Free agency “Do’s” No. 3: You can never sign enough DBs.
Spielman subscribes to this “Do.” The DBs don’t always end up making the team, but they give the Vikings depth and competition, which helps.
The team needs to upgrade the strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo give it everything they have, but they’re limited in what they have to give.
I can’t see the Patriots letting Devin McCourty get away, but the Vikings are probably too conservative to be in the bidding war for him if he became available.
A Rahim Moore could be a possibility as the Vikings look to create more quality competition.
And, as usual, they’ll also be searching for corners. Xavier Rhodes is on his way to being a star player. Captain Munnerlyn is on he way to being a nickel package player only. And Josh Robinson is too risky to depend on as a starter.
Picking a corner high in the draft also is a possibility, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to cover one’s bet with an experienced free agent.
Meanwhile, at middle linebacker, free agency appears to be a much better avenue than the draft this year. Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga looks like an intriguing possibility with his experience under Zimmer.
The Vikings have officially released veteran offensive guard Charlie Johnson.
The 30-year-old spent the past four seasons with the Vikings, starting 61 of 64 games. In 2014, he struggled at left guard before missing two games late in the season with an ankle injury. Johnson returned for the season finale, and it will likely end up being his final game in a Vikings uniform.
Johnson signed a two-year deal with the Vikings last offseason to stay with the team. By releasing Johnson, the team cleared $2.5 million in cap space without any dead money staying on the cap.
Johnson is now a free agent and can sign with any team.
Johnson’s release was not a surprise. The Vikings are expected to prioritize improving the offensive line this offseason after that group disappointed last season. With the other four starters from the 2014 season opener expected to return, the team could add a veteran guard in free agency, select one in April’s NFL draft or both.
Veteran backups Joe Berger and Vlad Ducasse are scheduled to join Johnson in unrestricted free agency on March 10. Backup tackle Mike Harris is a restricted free agent.
It was about time for head coach Mike Zimmer to wrap up his official NFL scouting combine press conference last Thursday. All of the pressing questions, like the ones about Adrian Peterson and the team’s plans for free agency, had already been asked when a reporter slipped in a question about defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who thrived under Zimmer when healthy enough to play.
“Sharrif, I thought he had a good year,” Zimmer said. “He improved quite a bit. Losing weight at the beginning of the season helped him quite a bit. He changed his diet. And he’s a very conscientious hard-working kid who has a chance to be a very good three technique.”
That wasn’t all Zimmer had to say about Floyd, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
In his second NFL season, Floyd made 42 tackles, recorded 4.5 sacks and had 30 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which was tied with Tom Johnson for the team lead among defensive tackles. PFF, by the way, graded him as one of the league’s best at his position.
Injuries were an issue, though, as Floyd missed two games and got knocked out of a couple others. As a result, he only played 52.5 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014.
Floyd’s level of durability was on Zimmer’s mind as he wrapped up his answer to that question.
“He’s got to continue to stay healthy,” Zimmer continued. “That will be a big thing for him. He’s got to understand that the NFL is a big man’s game. You have to go out and play all the time. But he’s a young developing player and I think he’ll get that figured out too.’’
I’ll let you read between the lines on that one.
Brandon Bostick, the tight end whom the Vikings claimed off waivers last week, has shared an interesting first-person piece for MMQB.com about his emotions and experiences in the aftermath of that botched attempt at recovering an onside kick late in last month’s NFC title game.
After Bostick’s special-teams miscue, the Seahawks went on to defeat his now-former team, the Packers, in overtime. He immediately became a scapegoat and is still trying to cope with the loss.
“There have been a few deaths in my family, and when I was in high school, a favorite uncle passed away. When he died, I didn’t cry because it didn’t feel real. The night of the NFC championship game kind of felt like that,” Bostick told MMQB.
“I knew it was a big deal. I knew it was a key mistake that cost us a trip to the Super Bowl. But, with all due respect, I think the media kind of took it and ran with it. I became the singular scapegoat. Social media didn’t help, either. I don’t know how many death threats I received, but there have been a lot. I still haven’t read most of the messages that people sent me, but I want to so I can deal with the consequences and use it as motivation. But it is physically impossible for me to read every troll’s comment; the volume is simply too much. So their comments sit there, untouched, maybe forever.”
Interestingly, former Browns running back Earnest Byner, who lost “The Fumble” in 1987 that cost the Browns the AFC title, called up Bostick in the days after the game and offered to give him guidance. Bostick said he and Byner have since talked once or twice a week.
I don’t want to steal all of Bostick’s thunder, so read the whole piece for yourself right here.
The NFL scouting combine is now a few days behind us, which means the draftniks have had sufficient time to update their mock drafts to reflect what was learned in Indy.
It is still more than two months until the actual draft, and future events — none bigger than free agency — will shape how the first round of the draft actually plays out.
But if the draft were to take place today, it seems as if there is no consensus about which position the Vikings will target first. Sure, a number of the mock drafts I pulled up still had them taking a wide receiver, a popular pick the last time I did this roundup. But now we are starting to see some new names linked to the Vikings in these premature projections.
One in particular keeps popping up. That would be Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, who helped himself by running one of the fastest forty times down in Indy. The Vikings could use another quality cornerback, especially in this division, so the connection does sound logical.
Anyway, check out which prospects are being mocked to the Vikings in these notable mock drafts:
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia. “After White’s performance at the combine the Vikings will be lucky if he is still on the board when they pick,” Kirwan wrote. “White is big, fast and productive and is a perfect fit in Norv Turner’s offense. Teddy Bridgewater could have AP behind him and White and Patterson out wide which puts this team on the map.”
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report: DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville. “Reunited and it feels so good for DeVante Parker and his college quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The two Louisville Cardinals need each other — Teddy needs a legitimate No. 1 receiver and Parker will step into an NFL offense begging for his ability in the red zone,” Miller wrote. “With freakish size, game speed and the ability to post up in the end zone, Parker has the skill set needed to open up the Minnesota offense with speedsters like Jarius Wright and the big-play potential of Cordarrelle Patterson.”
Todd McShay, ESPN: Waynes. “I think this pick could come down to Waynes and Louisville receiver DeVante Parker, who was Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s favorite target at Louisville and is a top-10 player on our board,” McShay wrote. “But Minnesota really needs help at corner, so I’ll go with Waynes. He really helped himself at the combine by running a 4.31 40-yard dash, which eliminated any concerns about his speed after showing a little bit of tightness on tape. He is a technically sound cover corner with good instincts and football character. Plus, he plays hard and isn’t afraid to show up in run support.”
Peter King, MMQB: Waynes. “Even if the Adrian Peterson thing blows up and the Vikings lose him and they love Melvin Gordon … Mike Zimmer likes his front’s ability to pressure the quarterback,” King wrote. “Now he wants a corner to play with Xavier Rhodes as his two long-term cover guys in a division with very good quarterbacking.”
Eric Galko, Optimum Scouting: Parker. “Norv Turner recently said that Charles Johnson is the Vikings’ best receiver. That’s basically code for, ‘We need to upgrade at receiver,’” Galko wrote. “Parker is in the mix for the top receiver in the class, and his relationship with Teddy Bridgewater gives him the nod over the other options here [including White].”
Peter Schrager, Fox Sports: Waynes. “Waynes could go earlier, depending on team needs in the top 10. He is a 6-foot, 186-pound corner who starred in a man-to-man defense at Michigan State. He worked on an island against some of the best in the country,” Schrager wrote. “He does it all and runs a 4.32 40-yard dash. Mike Zimmer is a defensive backs coach at heart and there are never enough corners in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler.”
Eric Edholm, Yahoo Sports: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa. “The guard-tackle versatility would allow Scherff to start inside as a rookie and kick out to tackle eventually if the Vikings don’t re-sign Matt Kalil after 2015 or decide to part ways with Phil Loadholt,” Edholm wrote. “Scherff is already an established run blocker who fits what the Vikings want to do offensively.”
Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. “Cooper would be a steal for the Vikings and their young franchise quarterback,” Jeremiah wrote.
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford. “Passing up Teddy Bridgewater’s former Louisville teammate, receiver DeVante Parker, probably won’t be a popular move in many places,” Banks wrote. “But solidifying the offensive line and protecting the young quarterback is paramount, and Peat addresses one of the team’s weakest links.”
Matt Brown, Sports on Earth: Waynes. How often does the extremely obvious mock draft pick actually happen? Understandably, DeVante Parker has long been pegged to the Vikings, who need another outside receiver. Who better to pair with Teddy Bridgewater than his top college target?” Brown wrote. “But the wide receiver depth in this draft is strong; the Vikings may instead opt to take the top cornerback on the board. Waynes further established himself in that position after running a blistering 4.32 in the 40.”
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Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?