When the orange and blue confetti fluttered down on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at the end of Super Sunday, the NFL offseason officially was underway, though it unofficially started for the Vikings after their crushing playoff loss.
The Vikings had hoped to be there in Santa Clara, Calif., playing in Super Bowl 50. But instead General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and the rest of the organization’s brain trust got a head start of the offseason, making staff changes and forming preliminary plans for free agency and the draft.
Their challenge is much different from what it was a couple of years ago. By toppling the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and earning a home playoff game, the Vikings have set the bar as high as it has been since the Brett Favre years. They have a good coach, they have their quarterback and they have assembled a nice nucleus.
Now they must figure out how to take that proverbial next step and transition from a good team with promise into a great one with Super Bowl bling.
Most of their prominent players from 2015 will be back. But this is the NFL, so there will be changes in the coming months. Free agents will walk. Veterans will be cut. And Spielman and Zimmer will continue to turn over the roster.
Here are seven pressing questions for the Vikings as the offseason officially kicks off:
Can they fix their offensive line?
Zimmer has made it clear this will be the top priority this offseason, though it probably should have been the top priority last offseason. Zimmer already has let offensive line coach Jeff Davidson go, replacing him with Tony Sparano. He also implied that there will be open competition along the offensive line, from left tackle Matt Kalil to longtime center John Sullivan (assuming he regains his health) to young right tackle T.J. Clemmings. There should be a number of quality veterans available in free agency, and it’s a safe bet that the Vikings will draft a lineman in the first three rounds for the first time since 2012.
What are their other needs?
Beyond the offensive line, the Vikings don’t have many glaring needs. Credit should go to Spielman and, to a lesser degree Zimmer, for stocking the roster with young talent. Wide receiver is one position the Vikings should look to upgrade. Stefon Diggs proved to be a nice find in the fifth round last year and Jarius Wright is a reliable option out of the slot, but they are lacking a physical wideout with size who can make contested catches downfield. They also should look to halt the revolving door at strong safety. Their lesser needs include depth at all three levels of the defense and competition at punter.
Will Chad Greenway be back?
Greenway is the team’s most noteworthy unrestricted free agent, along with veteran cornerback Terence Newman, who could be back in 2016. Greenway started the 2015 season off with a reduced role as the third linebacker but ended up playing nearly 60 percent of the snaps because of injuries to Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Zimmer praised Greenway’s leadership after the season but stopped short of saying he thought Greenway could be an effective player in a starting role again in 2016. Greenway, 33, wants to play one more season with the Vikings. But the team could decide to move on from him.
Who could be cap casualties?
Wide receiver Mike Wallace, who had only 39 catches for 473 yards and two touchdowns in his first season in Minnesota, is not expected to be back, and certainly not at his $11.5 million salary. Veteran right tackle Phil Loadholt just turned 30, missed 21 games the past two years because of season-ending injuries and has a $7.75 million salary cap number. He could be a goner. And then there is defensive end Brian Robison. The fan favorite turns 33 in April, has a $5.1 million cap hit and defensive end Danielle Hunter impressed as a rookie, so the Vikings could ask Robison to take a pay cut in order to stick around.
Hey, what about Blair Walsh?
No, the Vikings aren’t expected to part ways with Walsh after his last-minute miss in the playoff loss to Seattle. After Walsh had a down year in 2014, the Vikings showed their faith in the 2012 first-team All-Pro by giving him a four-year, $13 million contract extension. Walsh had a fine bounce-back season before he missed wide left from 27 yards against the Seahawks. Walsh handled the devastating miss with impressive class and accountability. But it would be understandable for the Vikings to worry if he ever will recover mentally and emotionally and, as a result, bring in competition at kicker.
Will Harrison Smith get paid?
The time has come for the Vikings to open up the checkbook for Smith, one of the NFL’s most versatile safeties. Smith made it to his first Pro Bowl in 2015, albeit as an injury replacement. One suspects it won’t be his last invitation. The Vikings used their fifth-year option on the 2012 first-rounder, ensuring that he will be under contract for 2016. But Spielman, with the help of vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, typically has reached deals with ascending players before their contract years begin. It will be surprising if they don’t get something done with Smith before the 2016 season opener.
Will the Vikings make a splash?
It has been Spielman’s preference to patiently build through the draft and remain relatively quiet during free agency, a strategy with which Zimmer is on board. But could this year be an exception? The Vikings will have roughly $20 million in salary cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, and easily could create a lot more. They went 11-5 in 2015, won the NFC North and seem poised to be legitimate title contenders in 2016. And they are opening shiny, new U.S. Bank Stadium this summer. So the Vikings might be tempted to seize on the moment and bring in a pricey, “unique” talent for a potential Super Bowl push.