Minnesota Vikings' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IMarch 3, 2014

Minnesota Vikings' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

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    The Minnesota Vikings enter the fast-approaching NFL free-agency period like a chess player moving a pawn forward two squares.

    By that we mean that almost every move Minnesota makes, both in free agency and in the draft, will be reactionary to what other moves the team has already made. This isn't to say that the Vikings won't be proactive in free agency, but obviously where they spend their dollars off the top will certainly dictate how they move forward in addressing other needs.

    It's pretty simple: If the Vikings land a starting cornerback in free agency, you can cross that position off the list as a first-round draft possibility. If Minnesota doesn't sign a quarterback in free agency, you can be pretty certain they'll be more aggressive trying to find one early in the draft.

    Teams are able to start negotiating with free agents this Saturday, March 8, and the signing period begins on Tuesday, March 11.

    Here we give you the blueprint for the Vikings to come out ahead after the free-agency period.

Re-Sign Quarterback Matt Cassel

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    How bad is the list of NFL free-agent quarterbacks?

    NFL.com's Greg Rosenthal has Josh Freeman listed as the third best available signal-caller.

    Yes, that's the same Josh Freeman who played in one game for the Vikings last season and threw the football around the Meadowlands like he was wearing a blindfold.

    We might get a good indication of what the Vikings' draft plans are, depending on what they do quarterback-wise in free agency.

    If Minnesota doesn't sign a prospective starter, that would leave Christian Ponder as the only quarterback on the roster, and that would point towards the Vikings targeting a quarterback in the first round.

    That might be playing with fire however, as there is a very real possibility that three, and even four, quarterbacks could be gone before the Vikings select with the eighth overall pick.

    For Minnesota to enter the 2014 season with a proven starting quarterback, they'll have to bring Matt Cassel back into the fold with another one- or two-year deal, perhaps with both sides again having an option on the second year, like in his previous deal.

    Signing Cassel would certainly open up the Vikings' options when it comes to the draft. If a quarterback they love is around with the eighth pick? Take him and whoever has the best camp starts. If Minnesota wants to fill one of their many holes on defense? Having Cassel signed at least gives them some security that they have a reliable starter at quarterback.


Re-Sign Defensive End Everson Griffen

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    Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, along with most successful general managers in the NFL, has a pretty simple philosophy when it comes to maximizing that talent on a team's roster. You re-sign your own free agents that make sense, and you build through the draft.

    Minnesota hits the 2014 free-agency period with two of their defensive ends on the market. It makes sense to re-sign one of them. 

    As hard as it is to say goodbye to Jared Allen, the Vikings are in no position to meet Allen's asking price, as they try to rebuild a defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL last season.

    The guess is that Allen will be looking for a two-year deal that pays him north of $20 million. Allen might well be worth that, but not in Minnesota. Allen needs a fresh start to rejuvenate his career, and the Vikings can't justify paying him that much money when they have so many holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball.

    Though NFL.com has Everson Griffen ranked higher than Allen on their list of available free agents, he certainly won't cost quite as much money as Allen.

    The Vikings have groomed the 6'3", 270-pound Griffen for four seasons, and while he's shown plenty of flashes of brilliance, he's never been a consistent force. That might be due to his being a rotational player, and the Vikings owe it to themselves to find out what Griffen can do as a full-time starter.

    If the Vikings let Griffen sign somewhere else and he blows up, they'd only have themselves to blame.

Sign Free-Agent Defensive End Michael Johnson

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    Like we said in the introductory slide, the Vikings' moves in free agency and in the draft, will be like a game of chess. In this case, the Vikings could lose two critical pieces, but recover nicely by landing a new one.

    Defensive end Michael Johnson is one of the more interesting free agents on the market this year. As we all know, Johnson has spent his career playing for new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

    As Paul Dehner Jr. writes in the Cincinnati Enquirer, it's a long-shot that the Bengals re-sign Johnson, who they slapped with the franchise tag before last season.

    And while Johnson saw a giant dip in his sack numbers in 2013 (3.5, down from 11.5 in 2012), the fact that they used the franchise tag on him shows that Zimmer is extremely high on him.

    Although Johnson's sack numbers were low in 2013, he remained one of the highest regarded defensive ends in the league. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling wrote of him:

    Although Johnson's sacks dipped from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013, he remained one of the finest all-around defensive ends in the league. In addition to stuffing the run, Johnson also generated plenty of quarterback hits and hurries.

    The Vikings will no doubt evaluate the defensive end market and react accordingly. If Griffen's potential, which isn't a secret around the league, is able to garner him a bigger contract than they think he's worth, then Minnesota might let both he and Allen walk and sink their money into Johnson, who Zimmer knows and who, at 27, is just one year older than Griffen.

    Johnson would cost the Vikings a pretty penny, but, according to Spotrac.com, with approximately $35 million in cap space, and letting both Allen and Griffen go, they could afford it.

Sign Free-Agent Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph

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    Okay, we realize this isn't fantasy football and that you can't just gobble up all the best available free agents. NFL free agency is like picking an ice cream cone at 31 Flavors. If Minnesota acts on the previous slide, they couldn't afford to go ahead with this one. Pick your flavor.

    The Vikings have been desperate for a massive presence in the middle of their defensive line since they decided to part ways with Pat Williams after the 2010 season.

    At 6'4", 323 pounds, Linval Joseph would fill the bill for Minnesota. Just 25 years old, Joseph will be in high demand on the free-agent market. Greg Bedard of MMQB.com has him ranked as the 10th best free agent available.

    While the possibility still exists that the Giants place the franchise tag on Joseph, if he hits the open market, the Vikings would certainly have to be willing to at least kick the tires a little bit.

    Minnesota drafted defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd with their first pick last year, and he'll take over the under-tackle position that Kevin Williams manned for a decade. Putting Joseph next to Floyd would give the Vikings a young, athletic defensive middle that they could build out from.


Re-Sign Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson

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    The good news for the Vikings is that free-agent wide receiver Jerome Simpson didn't play his way into a big contract for 2014. A DWI charge in November certainly won't help his bargaining power either.

    What Simpson did do in 2013 was catch 48 passes for 726 yards and pick up several downfield pass interference penalties. His 12 catches for over 20 yards led the team, and he flashed enough ability to be a legitimate third receiver.

    Simpson is now 28 years old, so the hope that he'll develop into an elite wideout is far-fetched, but he is the sort of downfield threat that can stretch a defense and open things up.

    Vikings new head coach Mike Zimmer is familiar with Simpson, who played for the Bengals for three years before coming to Minnesota.

    The fact that Minnesota can sign Simpson to a relatively cheap deal increases the odds that he'll be back in purple in 2014.


Re-Sign Cornerback Chris Cook

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    Vikings free-agent cornerback Chris Cook has done nothing in his four seasons with the team to warrant starting cornerback money.

    Having said that, when's the best time to buy a stock? When it's low.

    Cook, the Vikings' first selection in the 2010 draft, is still looking for his first career interception and has never played more than 12 games in a season.

    What that means is that Cook enters free agency not looking for a big money deal, but only for a job.

    It makes sense for Minnesota to re-sign Cook to a cheap deal and simply try to recoup some of the time and money they've already invested in him.

    New head coach Mike Zimmer has a nice history of reclamation projects on the defensive side of the ball, and the prospect of Cook fighting for a job as a third cornerback has to be intriguing to him. The Vikings have learned over the last few seasons how valuable depth in the secondary can be, and bringing Cook back as a depth player makes sense.

Sign Free-Agent Cornerback Alterraun Verner

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    Cornerback Alterraun Verner hits free agency at just 25 years old and has 11 career interceptions to his name, in just four seasons with the Titans.

    At 5'10", 187 pounds, Verner is slightly undersized, but he obviously has a nose for the football. The Vikings have been starved for interceptions over the last five seasons, and an addition like Verner would certainly be a step in the right direction.

    It's a deep free-agent class at cornerback with the likes of Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond, but Verner, with his age and ability, might have the highest price tag.

    The Vikings might have an in with Verner in that their new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray was Verner's defensive coordinator in Tennessee for the past three seasons.

    Once again, the Vikings will have to pick and choose where they want to spend their free-agent dollars. We've listed three of the top free agents here, and the likelihood of signing more than one of them is very slim. 

    The Vikings moves in free agency will certainly impact how they draft, and vice versa. 

Think About Re-Signing Running Back Toby Gerhart

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    We've written over and over that Toby Gerhart's days as a member of the Minnesota Vikings are probably over.

    One would think that Gerhart would like at least the opportunity to compete for a starting role, something that isn't going to happen in Minnesota, as long as Adrian Peterson is around.

    The truth is, however, that the market for Gerhart might not be that strong as the NFL continues to marginalize the running back position. 

    The Vikings would do well to monitor the Gerhart situation. The reasons for bringing him back to Minnesota would be the exact same ones they drafted him for: He's an excellent spot performer and an ideal backup for Peterson.

    It's hard to say what's in Gerhart's head. If he values his long-term health and enjoys his life in Minnesota, the Vikings might have a shot at retaining him. If his competitive nature is itching to find out what he's capable of, than he's going to sign elsewhere.