The NFL’s free-agent market won’t officially open until 3 p.m. Tuesday. But as of Saturday morning, thanks to a new league policy, teams and agents can begin negotiating on all players set to become unrestricted free agents.
That subtle rule tweak provides a new 88-hour bargaining window that, technically speaking, didn’t previously exist.
So while deals with outside free agents can’t be rubber-stamped until Tuesday, the free-agent action might really start escalating this weekend. With that in mind, here’s your quick Vikings guide to free agency.
After releasing Michael Jenkins on Monday, the Vikings now have exactly one receiver under contract who had more than 30 catches last season: Percy Harvin. Now comes the necessary push to overhaul the receiving corps.
It’s a priority the Vikings still figure to address more heavily through the draft. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be somewhat active in free agency.
Yes, two major headliners likely will become available Tuesday: Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. But both figure to command contracts in excess of $10 million per year. And given the philosophy of Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman to build through the draft while avoiding overly expensive free-agent signings, it’s unlikely the Vikings will be major players for either Wallace or Jennings.
You also have to figure both receivers will seek out opportunities in which they can flourish in proven passing attacks. And at last check, there wasn’t a long line of marquee NFL pass catchers fighting to join forces with Christian Ponder in a run-first offense.
Realistically that means the Vikings might be left searching the bargain bin for free-agent receivers.
Perhaps that means bringing Jerome Simpson back for a second season with another short-term, low-risk deal. And perhaps it means browsing the open market for young, second-tier talents such as Brandon Gibson, Donnie Avery and Kevin Ogletree.
Doing the dirty work
Internally, the Vikings have a profound belief that Ponder will make a big leap forward in his third year starting. There are also great expectations that Adrian Peterson will continue riding the tidal wave of momentum he built during his 2012 MVP campaign. But both Ponder and Peterson will need help up front. Which is where the Vikings’ current contract talks with right tackle Phil Loadholt and Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton come into play.
Loadholt and agent Gary Uberstine seem to have leverage, free to gauge the market this weekend where the value for a physical, durable right tackle will be established. At that point, the Vikings will have to weigh their appraisal of Loadholt’s worth against the price point presented to them.
Spielman has continually asserted that he wants to retain continuity and unity across an offensive line that started the same quintet for all 16 games last season. And Leslie Frazier said he believes Loadholt is coming off his most consistent season.
“I think he’s an ascending player,” Frazier said. “This is the time where we want to make sure that we keep him a Viking.”
As for Felton? As a matter of business practicality, he’ll dip his toes into the free-agent waters to gain a better sense of his true value. But you can bet that after frustrating stops through Detroit, Carolina and Indianapolis where he never could find a suitable niche, Felton isn’t taking the opportunity to block for the league MVP in a run-heavy offense for granted.
Next man up
The Vikings have Ponder’s name Sharpied into the top line of their depth chart at quarterback. But behind him at No. 2? Right now, Joe Webb’s name appears in feint pencil. With eraser rubbings nearby.
Neither Spielman nor Frazier has written off the possibility that Webb will remain the team’s back-up next season. But the Vikings have made it clear they plan to open up the competition, unnerved by how inaccurate and overwhelmed Webb seemed when called upon as the emergency starter during the team’s playoff loss in Green Bay.
So that means Webb will not only face a challenge from last year’s No. 3, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but that the Vikings will likely bring a veteran in to help solidify things.
Again, any outsider who signs with the Vikings will have to unselfishly accept a second-fiddle role behind Ponder.
So with that said, the list of quarterback UFAs with previous starting experience includes Tyler Thigpen, Rex Grossman, Derek Anderson, Jason Campbell and Matt Leinart.
Three of the Vikings’ top four linebackers from last season — Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley and Marvin Mitchell — are all set to become free agents. So which direction will the Vikings turn to provide Pro Bowler Chad Greenway added support?
Brinkley and Henderson each enjoyed solid 2012 seasons and grew into their heightened roles. But neither flourished when serving as the middle linebacker in nickel packages either.
Ideally, the Vikings would love to add a three-down inside linebacker with admirable coverage skills. But they may ultimately have to wait until April’s draft to fulfill that wish.
Free agent options could include Daryl Smith and Brad Jones. But only if the price is reasonable and the fit in the defense seems perfect.
Overall, familiarity with the likes of Henderson, Brinkley and, to an extent, Mitchell also will be a significant factor.