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.
General Manager Rick Spielman probably rained on the parade of Vikings fans who are hoping for a splash this offseason when he said yesterday that he expects the team to be patient in free agency.
“Once free agency starts we’ll probably lay in the weeds a little bit and see what happens,” he said.
Now, it’s understandable to be a little suspicious of general managers like Spielman this time a year. And after all, Spielman did leave himself a little wiggle room by saying the Vikings could open up the checkbook if “something unique pops up,” as they felt was the case with Greg Jennings in 2013.
But the Vikings are trying to build the foundation of a championship team through the NFL draft, as evidenced by the seven players they took in the first round the past three years. And while they are hoping for a return to the playoffs in 2015, I am sure that Spielman and the Vikings are aware that they aren’t one or two marquee players away from seriously competing for the Lombardi Trophy.
They also realize that overpaying for unknowns in free agency will make it trickier to keep core players like Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Teddy Bridgewater when their rookie deals are up.
“Not only are you planning for this year, but you also have to look into the future,” Spielman said.
So while the Vikings may surprise by pouncing on a top-dollar free agent next week, it seems more likely they target lower-tier guys, like they did last year with Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn.
In the spirit of that, let’s take a look at some of the top free agents that Vikings fans are clamoring for on Twitter and cheaper options who probably fit more in line with what the Vikings want to do.
Top-dollar free agent: Mike Iupati, G, 49ers
Lower-tier alternative: Clint Boling, G, Bengals
Someone is going to pay Iupati, a former first-round pick and a three-time Pro Bowler for the 49ers, a ton of money. But paying big bucks for a guard is tricky business (with a generational talent like Steve Hutchinson being an obvious exception). Instead, the Vikings could pursue Boling if they are looking for a physical guard who can help them get their power running game going again in 2015.
Top-dollar free agent: Byron Maxwell, CB, Seahawks
Lower-tier alternative: Davon House, CB, Packers
There was a lot of buzz about Maxwell at the NFL scouting combine. The Ringo Starr of the Legion of Boom, Maxwell is expected to have plenty of suitors and he could score a salary of more than $8 million per season. House, who was drafted a couple of rounds before Maxwell in 2011, was a part-time starter for the Packers, but he is young, he can run and he has some size, too.
Top-dollar free agent: Devin McCourty, S, Patriots
Lower-tier alternative: Ron Parker, S, Chiefs
Many NFL insiders thought it would be a formality that the Patriots would slap their franchise tag on McCourty. There is still a chance that he could return to the Patriots, but either way, he is getting paid. A cheaper gamble worth taking might be Parker, who like McCourty was a cornerback before being converted to safety. He doesn’t have the production of McCourty, but he has some potential.
Top-dollar free agent: Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos
Lower-tier alternative: Kenny Britt, WR, Rams
Yes, the Broncos used the franchise tag on Thomas, but it’s the non-exclusive tag, meaning another team can sign him away if they are willing to cough up a pair of first-round picks, too. This ain’t fantasy football, so chances are that’s not happening. While Britt is nowhere near as explosive as Thomas, he is also 6-foot-3 with a similar build and would also bring value inside the red zone.
Top-dollar free agent: Rey Maualuga, MLB, Bengals
Lower-tier alternative: Jasper Brinkley, MLB, Vikings
I understand why I get asked about Maualuga all the time. He’s a name player who has ties to Mike Zimmer with the Bengals. With all due respect to Maualuga, he is a solid run defender but is nothing special. There don’t appear to be many, if any, quality do-it-all middle linebackers in free agency. So if you’re settling for a two-down thumper there, why not just keep Brinkley around on the cheap?
General Manager Rick Spielman said this morning at the University of Minnesota’s pro day that the Vikings have spoken to running back Adrian Peterson since last Thursday and that they plan to continue to have an “open dialogue” with Peterson while he is on the commissioner’s exempt list.
“We are able to have communication now with Adrian,” Spielman said. “We’ll keep all those communications internal. I don’t want to give you guys a blow-by-blow [account] every day. I think it’s been very clearly stated that we want to have Adrian Peterson back. There’s no question about the talent. He’s a unique talent and he’s under contract with us next year.”
The Vikings were only allowed to speak with Peterson through their legal team while he was serving his NFL suspension. But last Thursday, the league placed Peterson on the exempt list after a federal judge overturned an NFL arbitrator’s ruling on Peterson’s appeal of his suspension. Per league rules, the Vikings can now speak with Peterson, something Spielman called “beneficial.”
Spielman was asked about Peterson’s comment two weeks ago about feeling “uneasy” about potentially returning to the Vikings and whether there is a “rift” between the player and the team.
“I’m not going to get into anything on that front,” said Spielman, who later added, “I can tell you that we’re going to have and we have open communication with him and we’ll just leave all those discussions between us and Adrian.”
A day after Judge David Doty overturned Adrian Peterson’s suspension and sent the matter back to the NFL — which quickly appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — Peterson issued this statement:
“As I prepare for my return to football, I am still focused on my family and continue to work to become a better father every day. I want to express my gratitude for all of the support I have received from the fans, NFLPA, Jeffrey Kessler, and my agents Ben Dogra, Tracy Lartigue, and Mark Heligman from Relativity Sports.”
Notable is Peterson’s non-mention of the Vikings, with whom he is under contract through 2017.
On Thursday night, Dogra issued a statement to the Associated Press that read: “I am pleased that U.S. District Judge David Doty recognized the merits of Adrian Peterson’s case and ruled in his favor. This is an important moment for Adrian, players’ rights, and the NFLPA. Adrian is an exceptional community member, father, husband and athlete who will continue to contribute meaningfully on and off the field. Any NFL team will be fortunate to have Adrian on its roster as he will consistently serve as a strong leader and impactful performer.”
That last sentence is pretty cryptic as well.
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.
|Atlanta||4||Bottom 7th Inning|
|Philadelphia||1||Bottom 7th Inning|
|St. Louis||4||Top 9th Inning|
|Baltimore||0||Bottom 7th Inning|
|NY Yankees||1||Top 8th Inning|
|Chicago Cubs||2:05 PM|
|Los Angeles||0||Top 1st Inning|
|San Diego||2:05 PM|
|Cleveland||0||Top 1st Inning|
|NY Mets||4:05 PM|
|Oklahoma City||7:00 PM|
|St. Louis||6:00 PM|
|NY Islanders||7:00 PM|
|Morgan State||3:00 PM|
|Holy Cross||6:00 PM|
|Western Ky||6:00 PM|
|Boston Univ||6:00 PM|
|American Univ||6:00 PM|
|Morehead State||6:00 PM|
|USC Upstate||6:00 PM|
|Fla Gulf Coast|
|Southern Ill||6:05 PM|
|Texas State||6:30 PM|
|SC State||6:30 PM|
|Delaware State||6:30 PM|
|Middle Tennessee||6:30 PM|
|Norfolk State||6:30 PM|
|NC A&T||6:30 PM|
|Savannah State||7:00 PM|
|Southern Miss||7:00 PM|
|Georgia State||7:00 PM|
|Ark-Little Rock||7:15 PM|
|South Alabama||7:30 PM|
|Alabama State||7:30 PM|
|Alabama A&M||7:30 PM|
|Sam Houston St||7:30 PM|
|Central Arkansas||7:30 PM|
|Portland State||7:30 PM|
|Southern U||7:30 PM|
|Alcorn State||7:30 PM|
|Houston Baptist||7:30 PM|
|SE Louisiana||7:45 PM|
|Eastern Ill||8:00 PM|
|VA Commonwealth||8:00 PM|
|Miss Valley St||0|
|Sacramento St||8:00 PM|
|Northwestern St||8:00 PM|
|Stephen F Austin|
|North Texas||8:00 PM|
|Abilene Christian||8:00 PM|
|Eastern Wash||8:05 PM|
|Cal State Fullerton||9:00 PM|
|Long Beach State|
|UC Riverside||9:00 PM|
|Manhattan||34||2nd Half 14:02|
|Massachusetts||31||2nd Half 14:53|
|Virginia||36||2nd Half 17:36|
|Jacksonville St||28||2nd Half 10:57|
|Morgan State||47||2nd Half 11:57|
|Campbell||24||1st Half 2:43|
|Furman||37||2nd Half 17:57|
|Oregon||29||1st Half 4:18|
|Indiana||6||1st Half 12:44|
|Pepperdine||2||1st Half 16:04|
|(18) Texas A&M|
|Morehead St||3:00 PM|
|George Mason||3:30 PM|
|Western Carolina||3:30 PM|
|East Tenn St|
|Texas State||4:00 PM|
|SC State||4:30 PM|
|Delaware State||4:30 PM|
|Norfolk State||4:30 PM|
|NC A&T||4:30 PM|
|Savannah State||5:00 PM|
|Virginia Tech||5:00 PM|
|Central Arkansas||5:00 PM|
|Houston Baptist||5:00 PM|
|Old Dominion||5:00 PM|
|Ark-Little Rock||5:00 PM|
|South Alabama||5:05 PM|
|Georgia State||5:15 PM|
|Sam Houston St||5:30 PM|
|SE Louisiana||5:30 PM|
|Northwestern St||5:30 PM|
|Stephen F Austin|
|Alabama A&M||5:30 PM|
|Alabama State||5:30 PM|
|Southern U||5:30 PM|
|Alcorn State||5:30 PM|
|Miss Valley St||0|
|Abilene Christian||6:00 PM|
|La Salle||6:00 PM|
|TX-San Antonio||6:00 PM|
|Missouri State||6:05 PM|
|Georgia Tech||7:00 PM|
|(15) North Carolina|
|Florida Atlantic||7:00 PM|
|Texas-El Paso||7:00 PM|
|Wichita State||7:00 PM|
|San Francisco||8:00 PM|
|Idaho State||8:00 PM|
|Weber State||8:00 PM|
|Cal State Fullerton|
|Long Beach St||9:00 PM|
|UC Santa Barbara|
|UC Davis||9:00 PM|
|Northern Ariz||9:00 PM|
|Southern Utah||9:00 PM|
Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?