VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData, Arif Hasan of Vikings Territory, Aj Mansour, who hosts Minnesota Vikings Overtime on KFAN, and Joe Oberle a long-time Minnesota based writer. The VikesCentric crew crunches numbers, watches video and isn't shy about saying what's on their minds.

VikesCentric: The $13 Million Offseason Question...

Posted by: AJ Mansour Updated: January 26, 2015 - 1:36 PM

For some, the offseason is the most wonderful time of the year. With speculation running rampant, fans of teams who are not performing in this weekend’s Super Bowl are already scanning the free agency list and looking deep into the Draft Class to compile their wish list for off season acquisitions. This fun is precisely why the NFL is the juggernaut that it has become.

But for fans of the Minnesota Vikings, this approach, this fun has been tempered by something that has hung over the heads of the organization for the past six or seven months. And as much as it is on the minds of the fans, it’s even more of a concern for those cutting the checks inside the offices at Winter Park.

As it stands now, running back Adrian Peterson is a member of the team and his $15 million contract is going to count against the books for next season. But his future with the team is still very much up in the air. Does he want to be here anymore? Do the Vikings want him to be here anymore? It’s a $13 million question that could decide the direction of the team not only for the next season but deep into the future.

For the Vikings, these are the two questions at the crux of the situation that could dictate their entire approach to the free agent market and the 2015 NFL Draft.

If Peterson goes, which would likely require an amended date to come out of his February 6th court hearing, the Vikings will have loads of money to take into the free agency pool. As outlined in a previous post (Cowboys Unlikely to Retain Bryant and Murray, Why Is This Good For The Vikings), with Peterson off the books, the Vikings will clear an extra $13 million of cap space. Make a few other cuts and restructures (Johnson/Felton/Ponder, Greenway/Jennings) and the Vikings will be sitting with somewhere in the ballpark of $30-$33 million to play with during free agency.  This sort of money would afford the Vikings some opportunities to rebuild with talented veterans that they have not had in a long time.

Building around the young core of Teddy Bridgewater on offense and Anthony Barr on defense, Spielman could target big name free agents at the offensive guard, wide receiver and linebacker spots to put this team back in contention very quickly.

But what if I told you that the other option, retaining Peterson, could have a better long-term outlook? What if I said that keeping Adrian and eating the $15 million he is owed would make the team better next season? Have I caught your attention?

At the center of this other path, it the retention of Adrian Peterson. Maybe the two sides have overcome the hurt feelings that surfaced during the past 8 months. Maybe Adrian wants to be here or maybe Adrian wants to keep his $15 million paycheck?

So Adrian stays, where does the team go from there?

With Peterson still counting against the books, the Vikings would still have somewhere in the ballpark of $17-$20 million to play with during free agency, barring some unforeseen bigtime cut. That still gives you a decent chunk of change to maybe target one top-level free agent and a few b-level guys. But the approach is completely different now, maybe diminishing the importance of free agency.

With Adrian in the backfield, your team gets better. We’ve seen it before, namely in 2012 when Christian Ponder was at the helm and Adrian went wild on the ground.

If Peterson is still effective, upgrading your left guard drops from your first priority maybe to your third or fourth. We’ve seen it before, Adrian Peterson has the ability to make a pedestrian offensive line look dominant. I mean seriously, with Adrian behind them, we once thought that Bryant McKinnie and Charlie Johnson were good linemen! It would allow the team to try their hand at a rookie LG through the draft rather than targeting Mike Iupati and forking over some serious cash in the process.

Adding the variable of Adrian to the backfield would take some of the pressure off of Bridgewater too. Having a serious ground threat to tag team with Teddy’s aerial assault ensures that the opposing defense will play more of a straight up style rather than leaning one way or the other.

It opens up the passing game for the wide receivers as well. You’ll see more one-on-ones on the outside and, seemingly, the passing game should jump up as well maybe deferring the need for another big time wide receiver one more year.

In essence, plopping Adrian Peterson back out on the field is the same as acquiring the top offensive weapon through free agency for this coaching staff. They weren’t afforded the opportunity to experience the benefit it is to have that weapon on the field last season.

In the long run, this scenario might fall in line more so with what the team is wanting to do with its new direction and new coaching staff.

We’ve seen it pretty clearly the past few seasons that Rick Spielman’s path to success comes through the draft. Identifying and retaining good, young talent is a solid way to find long term success. Just take a look across the border to Green Bay or jolt out west to Seattle and you’ll see this plan playing out only a few steps ahead in the process from where we are today.

Having Peterson act as your main offensive improvement will allow the Vikings to focus most of their free agent spending money on the defensive side of the ball, much to Mike Zimmer’s pleasure. Highlight some top level linebackers and cornerbacks and use the draft to rebuild some of the offensive holes, maybe a wide receiver or another corner at #11.

I think the common perception among fans is to turn away from Adrian Peterson as soon as possible. It is believed that the Vikings have mortgaged their future with this Peterson contract. A highly paid running back in a passing league just doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. But when you look at the two scenarios outlined above, the latter seems to be more Green-Bay-Packers-Esque while the former is very much Washington-Redskins-Esque. Looking at the recent histories of those two teams, you tell me which path might be the best to explore?

Coming Later This Week: We'll break down each of these two scenarios and outline what the offseason (free agency/draft) might look like depending on which direction the Vikings go with Peterson. Stay tuned for more...
 
MORE AT VIKINGSJOURNAL.com...

VikesCentric: Ranking the Top Vikings Free Agent Targets: 21-16

Posted by: Updated: January 25, 2015 - 11:19 AM

The earlier rankings aren't too hard to find, and it wouldn't hurt to get a refresher:

20. Chris Culliver, San Francisco 49ers

The Minnesota Vikings probably need a corner. In that sense, the very talented (and extremely athletic) Chris Culliver is a fit. He played like one of the top corners in the league this last year and has the length, physicality and athleticism to seem like a natural pair with the Zimmer prototype.

With a 4.36 40-yard dash and a general weight-adjusted combine athleticism score in the 87th percentile, Culliver’s raw tools are a commodity and should by themselves fetch a price, as will his performance. Ranking sixth in cover snaps per reception, eighth in yards per snap in coverage and 18th in cover snaps per target (of 73 cornerbacks), Culliver was a high-end defensive back who also happened to allow only a 66.5 passer rating in coverage—sixth best in the NFL.

It further helps his case that his worst games of the year were early, and that he improved later on, despite going up against Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Russell Wilson.

He’s improved in his awareness and transition and has played this year with a natural feel for the position, closing on the ball better than most zone cornerbacks have done this year, breaking up his fair share of passes along the way. His burst is excellent and his instincts have begun to match his excellent physical capability.

Culliver was rarely beaten over the top and though he still has some footwork issues to work out, has done a much better job closing tight coverage and creating difficult windows.

All of that is great, but it hides the fact that the Vikings don’t necessarily need help on the outside, unless you’re sold on the idea that Josh Robinson’s true ability is closer to his midseason form than how he played at the beginning or end of the season. Culliver has played vanishingly few slot snaps, often kicking a cornerback inside when he gets onto the field in order to play left cornerback in 2011 and 2012 and right cornerback this last year.

Robinson himself provides a cautionary tale when it comes to attempting to project outside corners inside, even if they have the physical ability to do so. Robinson’s blazing 3-cone and short shuttle times (6.55 and 3.97, respectively) are arguably more impressive than his scorching 40-time (4.33), but all that quickness didn’t help him defending the slot.

For what it’s worth, Culliver also has high-level quickness from a combine perspective (6.88- and 4.08-second times) and though he’s had issue with the technique of his footwork on the field, has shown the kind of quickness that those scores imply. His fluidity has been a big asset on the field, but if he can’t translate that to slot duties, he’s a redundant contract.

Further, the 49ers’ emphasis on zone coverage has afforded him leeway when it comes to his struggle sin man coverage, something that doesn’t really speak well for a complete transition to the Vikings. He will too often in press-man situations allow receivers to get hip-to-hip with him, losing the leverage battle. Many times, this will happen at the line of scrimmage, limiting his recovery ability and creating a large window to throw to.

Still, he has the instincts and athleticism to be a good fit, and if Zimmer really is as good a defensive backs whisperer as he seems, then Culliver would be the kind of player worth signing a short-term (if somewhat hefty—though not too hefty given his 2011-2012 performances and 2013 injury) contract to provide real competition in the slot, even if he’s never played it before.

It also wouldn’t be bad to bring in someone familiar with Vic Fangio’s defenses now that Chicago has hired him.



19. Louis Delmas, S Miami Dolphins

It may be unusual to talk about Delmas the Dolphin, but that’s what free agency will do. The Lions were tired of his injury history (and more importantly, managed their cap poorly) so cut Delmas despite signing him to a new contract and seeing him play every single game for them (98 percent of snaps) after signing the contract.

He of course tore his ACL playing for the Dolphins with a month left in the season.

Delmas showed up on the Lions’ injury report as questionable, doubtful or out for 23 of the 33 eligible weeks of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the vast majority of them related to his knee. He was on the injury list as probable every week of 2013 and suffered a non-contact ACL injury with the Dolphins in December. The knee issues ranged from irritation to persistent tendinitis and ligament tears (including a partial MCL tear) before his ACL tore with the Dolphins.

Though an ACL tear is on a different plane in terms of injury than his previous injuries, it’s worth pointing out that he has returned from each injury at full speed and recovered unusually quickly from each one of them. Perhaps he rushed himself back on the field each time, but that his play doesn’t drop off is remarkable.

Delmas would have to be on a somewhat accelerated timeline to get on the field on opening day (Adrian Peterson’s ACL tear was two weeks later into the season), but the PUP list rules do give the Vikings some additional leeway.

When Delmas is on the field, he’s a prototypical safety. Underrated for his coverage capabilities, Delmas is seen as mostly a strong safety who takes good tackling angles while hitting extremely hard. He doesn’t always wrap up and that creates issues, but for the most part makes an impact in the run game. Extremely fast, Delmas knows how to maximize the force he puts out with his body despite a 200-pound frame.

That speed also grants Delmas extreme range. While he doesn’t have the ability to cover as much of the field as Eric Weddle or Earl Thomas, he’s nearly in that tier. That gives Delmas the versatility of being either an SS or FS, even though he was mostly used as a strong safety by the Lions (he was given more responsibility by the Dolphins).

His instincts are generally very good and he follows through with good ball tracking and an ability to close downhill in zones with a lot of speed. He has a good sense on how to position himself in the air when fighting for a contested ball, but he’s still somewhat inconsistent. He will bite on play action and other fakes more than a safety of his caliber should and is prone to eye manipulation from quarterbacks as well.

Still, there will be long stretches of play in coverage where he is difficult to attack, and he serves as an excellent addition in terms of run defense, taking down ballcarriers of all sizes—even taking down heavier backs like 235-pound Jonathan Stewart one-on-one.

A healthy Delmas isn’t necessarily a top five safety, but he certainly could be a top fifteen safety in the right system. Pairing him with Harrison Smith for what should amount to very little money is tantalizing enough to be worth a try. After all, not all injury-prone players continue to be injury prone.



18. Orlando Franklin, OG Denver Broncos

Orlando Franklin is at the top of a number of wishlists for teams short on guards—and that’s many teams—but it’s important to keep context in mind when evaluating the former tackle. Transitioning from a short-drop offense like Peyton Manning’s to one like Norv Turner’s is a big leap. Manning got rid of the ball faster than any other quarterback in the NFL, by a significant margin.

Last year, the fastest quarterback to throw (Manning) got rid of the ball in 2.36 seconds, and the year before that 2.47 seconds. In 2011 it was 2.40 seconds. This year, it was an unprecedented 2.24 seconds, faster than any quarterback with significant snaps since Pro Football Focus started measuring (which includes 2011-2014 and 2007).

Philip Rivers under Norv Turner would regularly hold on to the ball on average 2.8 seconds or so, and Bridgewater is no different (2.86), even when only measuring the final five weeks (2.88 seconds)—making quarterbacks in the Turner offense more susceptible to bad offensive line play that magnifies the weaknesses of individual players.

Even if there were no reason to have reservations about Orlando Franklin outside of other concerns, the switch from the fastest offense in the NFL to one of the slowest should give one pause when evaluating offensive linemen, and it confounds the data no matter what else is taken into account.

But there’s additional reason to be suspicious of his positive marks. He had issues getting inside the reach of defensive tackles, and quicker players like Wallace Gilberry (to choose one example out of his last several games) ate him alive. While longer players like Arthur Jones could keep him at bay as a result of his continuous problem getting inside the block, faster players like Geno Atkins could blow by him.

At times, Franklin would flash balance issues—more than most guards, but not so much that it’s a defining weakness of his. He did a better job against the bull rush and power rushers, which would suggest that his balance wasn’t continuously a problem either. He still can get driven back in pass protection as a result of pure strength (Jones did this at least twice in the Colts playoff game) but it’s not such a consistent issue that it would be characterized as a weakness on his part.

His best blocks, the ones that pancake players out of plays, happen in zone blocking when uncovered—when his only assignment is to downblock. While he does this better than many players in the NFL, and is certainly above average at it by some degree, it’s also not a skill that is difficult to find, especially at an acceptable level. Often very good blocks and blocks that are good enough have the same effect, so his mauling runs on outside zone plays are good to watch but not in practice a coveted skill.

It’s worth mentioning that Franklin plays high for an offensive lineman (something you’ll see happen a lot in tackle-to-guard converts), but it didn’t seem to impact his play too much—he often found ways underneath defenders despite all that.

As for recovery, Franklin can recover from being beat if the defensive lineman is attacking a little out of position, but has serious issues recovering if he doesn’t have a positional advantage, creating big problems. If he loses leverage in a block, especially in pass protection, his recovery is awkward and ineffective.

I don’t recall studying a guard who got away with holding so often. He was only called for it four times, but I suspect in a deeper-drop offense he’ll be called for it more often Franklin already suffers from a penalty problem aside from that, too—he was called five times for false starts and once for unnecessary roughness. Say what you will about Charlie Johnson, but he doesn’t get penalized much; he had one penalty before injury this year and three last year. Franklin had ten this year, eleven last year and ten once more in 2012.

If the left side of the line combined for 20+ penalties alone next year it would damage Minnesota’s otherwise sterling offensive penalty record (they had the third fewest penalties called on the offense last year) and back the offense up enough to stall a few drives.

Franklin has a very strong punch, even when comparing to other guards, and when it lands, that’s usually the end of a pass rush. He plays with a high level of awareness and does a good job picking up stunts and blitzes from the guard spot. He’s a dominating pulling guard, and though he didn’t do it much, he did a very good job with it when he did.

Those are all things that will stay with him wherever he goes, regardless of scheme and are worth building off of. It’s impossible not to acknowledge that he played at a high level and that his schematic advantages are not a discredit to him, so he’s still high on the list. But the difficulty of evaluation and some red flags means he’s not higher—especially because his price tag figures to be quite high.



17. Torrey Smith, WR Baltimore Ravens

The Vikings’ “need” at receiver is overrated, and though the corps is nowhere near the top of the list, it is more well-rounded than it seems, even if Cordarrelle Patterson doesn’t improve and Charles Johnson is a one-hit wonder.

That doesn’t mean adding a player like Torrey Smith is bad.

Smith, in the past two years, has become a much more complete receiver than people realize, and is an excellent route-runner relative to his reputation. He still has work to do in that regard, but his natural quickness and developing field sense both contribute to the kind of savvy one needs in order to be a full-fledged split end. His experience in the Coryell system should help, as well.

Though he could be sharper in that sense, the thing Smith is good at, he’s really good at. One of the premier deep threats in the league, the 6’0” receiver knows how to take the top off of defenses and punish teams for forgetting to shade their safeties to his side of the field.

Given the strength of the slot threats for the Vikings (either through an improved Kyle Rudolph or with Greg Jennings/Jarius Wright), Smith’s potential for forcing cover-two looks from teams could really open up the passing game in big ways, or enable the running game, with or without Adrian Peterson.

He high-points the ball well and shields it from defensive backs, making him the kind of contested ball receiver the Vikings simply don’t have at this point, sans development from Patterson and physicality from Johnson.

There are a number of talented receivers hitting the market, but they don’t fill a niche in the same way that Torrey Smith does, so as nice as it would be to add Demaryius Thomas or Randall Cobb, they have overlapping skill sets with people already on the roster, making any high-paying contract for them a little too redundant for comfort.

Smith, on the other hand, provides the kind of deep threat that the Turner offense may need to get going, and his increasing development as a receiver is an additional boon in terms of helping out the offense.

The Vikings may end up having a lot of cap space this offseason, depending on how they deal with Chad Greenway’s contract and what they’ll do in terms of restructuring, but odds are they may be able to make a splash here or there.

Torrey Smith is one of the youngest free agents on this list, and will be 26 tomorrow (as of publish date). Barring the unforeseeable, he has a lot of years left in him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of the big signings in the offseason that was properly valued, after big contracts to other receivers set the market.

It could well be in everyone’s best interest if Torrey Smith stays in purple… just in a different shade.



16. Jerry Hughes, DE Buffalo Bills

A lot of defensive ends will make the list when all is said and done, and only a little bit of this is due to disappointing play from Brian Robison and the worrisome absence of Scott Crichton. The other reason is because there are a lot of great pass rushers in this free agency class, and it would feel a shame not to take advantage of it.

Players who are not necessarily system fits, but could be, were left off the list if only because they would feel more at home in a 3-4 and would command a high contract—Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee—but aren’t necessarily bad options.

Jerry Hughes, on the other hand, is a fit for nearly any system, and he’s shown significant versatility over the years. He’ll be 27 when the season starts and would be able to compete right away for serious snaps on the defensive line.

Even if Robison bounces back and has a good year, it would be worth adding a starting quality contract at defensive end because of how Zimmer typically runs his system. In 2013, the Bengals gave over 500 snaps to Wallace Gilberry and the year before nearly gave as many snaps to substitute Carlos Dunlap (601) as starter Robert Geathers (660). Fourth-string defensive end, Wallace Gilberry, took 300 snaps himself, too.

Throughout Zimmer’s history, you’ll see about 2400 snaps given to defensive ends over the course of the year, with starters only taking about 60 percent of snaps. That’s much different than what Minnesota is used to, where even in a year where their second-string defensive end (Everson Griffen) was mauling players, the starters saw at least 75 percent of snaps (between 2012 and 2013, the starters saw 80 percent of snaps). While 2013 was an anomaly for Zimmer (perhaps motivated by the loss of Geno Atkins but also the addition of James Harrison, who was not counted as a defensive end), his history largely shows significant rotation along the defensive line.

That means bringing in a player who is more than Corey Wootton and providing serious competition for what is functionally a starting spot to Scott Crichton.

Corey Wootton’s poor play means that Minnesota saw the same amount of rotation as before, with 87 percent of defensive end snaps going to starters.

There’s good reason to believe that Zimmer will change this (and again, Anthony Barr changes the calculus a little bit), so adding another defensive end makes good sense, even if he costs money.

Hughes could likely supplant Brian Robison on day one. Not only did he rank highly in Pass Rusher Productivity—a per-snap measure by Pro Football Focus that weights sacks, hits and hurries—but stood out as a solid run defender on a defense full of solid run defenders.

Though Hughes was not successful in Indianapolis (and his 2012 was underrated), he exploded onto the scene in Buffalo as a 3-4 outside linebacker. While that initially seemed to be the key that unlocked Hughes’ potential, a full season at 4-3 defensive end a year later proved that not to be the case—he’s just a good pass rusher.

He’s fast, strong and fluid, with some of the best closing speed capability in the NFL, along with smart technique, footwork and excellent flexibility. He has the ability to play inside in a pinch, though his frame suggests he should stick outside, and the strength he added this past offseason is a nice surprise after showcasing little of it in previous seasons.

Hughes has improved every year against the run, and his awareness has allowed him to set the edge on a consistent basis and prevent the outside from giving up the alley, though it helps having Brandon Spikes and the defensive line to help him out in that regard.

His time in a 3-4 showed he doesn’t have the instincts that a typical coverage defender has, but he definitely has the athletic ability to keep up with tight ends and running backs in coverage. That missing awareness as a coverage defender can be an issue if he’s asked to do it often, but he can peel off in coverage and cover receivers on a limited basis, just like Zimmer asked Everson Griffen and Brian Robison to do with outstanding results.

Coming out of TCU as an outside linebacker, Hughes should have had better coverage awareness, but for the Vikings that’s not a huge issue. He’s in the 85th percentile of weight-adjusted combine athleticism scores, and that puts him in the rare athletic territory of Everson Griffen (91st percentile), Barkevious Mingo (87th percentile) and Derrick Johnson (84th percentile).

Hughes probably won’t break the bank wherever he goes, but it will certainly be a starting-caliber contract. The Vikings, if they plan on continuing what Zimmer did in Cincinnati, shouldn’t balk because of that.

Head over to Vikings Journal to join our discussion on the Senior Bowl, how the Super Bowl is a remnant of Minnesota's legacy and our most recent mock draft.

Arif Hasan is a senior writer for Vikings Journal and the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory (currently being revamped until Monday). He is a former political consultant and a Minnesota native.

VikesCentric: Draft Guru Raises Vikings Grade In 2014 NFL Draft Re-Grade

Posted by: AJ Mansour under Vikings, NFL draft, Vikings draft Updated: January 24, 2015 - 9:06 AM

On the national scene, there is nobody more revered for predicting and analyzing the NFL Draft than ESPN Television’s Mel Kiper. Specializing on predicting the league’s draft since 1984, year-by-year Kiper’s accuracy gets better.

While Mel’s claim-to-fame will always be his legendary mock drafts, he also analyzes draft classes by each team the day after the draft concludes. Looking back to April of 2014 you can see Kiper’s grade on the 2014 Minnesota Vikings NFL Draft Class came in at a “B-”.

Kiper’s analysis centered around criticising the Vikings for reaching with the ninth overall pick and selecting Anthony Barr.

“I thought Anthony Barr was a pretty big reach based on my evaluations,” Kiper stated. “He’s a talented but raw player who lacks instincts on defense.”

With hindsight being 20/20 and having the 2014 season behind us, Kiper has now gone back to the draft boards that he graded before the season and has re-graded the 2014 draft class for each team. For the Minnesota Vikings, it was a mixed bag of criticism, but ultimately the grade did go up.

Not forgetting that third round offensive lineman David Yankey never played and sixth round cornerback Kendall James was cut before Week 1, Kiper raised his overall grade of the Vikings 2014 NFL Draft class to a “B+” in his recent re-evaluations.

The reasoning is pretty self explanatory, but here is what Kiper had to say after the fact.

“I actually knocked this draft down a peg last spring because I simply wasn’t as high on Anthony Barr as a player who could come in and provide early returns as a pass-rusher. The Vikings got him at No. 9 and I thought it was a reach; [after one season] it’s clear the Vikings have a player.”

Barr finished his rookie season with 55 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 passes defensed and 2 fumble recoveries despite missing the team’s final four games.

On the offensive side of the ball, the praise continued to rain down from Kiper.

“They also have a player in Teddy Bridgewater, who was the top QB on my all-rookie team. Sure, you can question whether he’ll become a star, but you can’t question that he looked more ready for this level of competition than any other rookie QB, and that he’s simply tough. I really like Bridgewater’s chances, and as I said then, “moving decisively to get [him] made sense, and they have the pieces around him to help him succeed.”

Teddy, one of the finalists for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, finished with 2,919 passing yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs and a passer rating of 85.2 after coming on strong down the stretch of the season.

Maybe the best praise though, at least for the immediate future of this Vikings squad, came for running back Jerick McKinnon.

“Jerick McKinnon got called into action earlier than we thought and looked pretty good -- I do think if he gets a lot of carries, he’s going to hit a lot of home runs.”

“All in all, Minny has to be excited about this class. Barr was pretty good, and Bridgewater has a chance to be the answer at QB. Great Start.”

For those of us who watched every one of the Vikings games this season, I think that anaysis would be tough to argue.

But since we did watch every game this season, let’s take Kiper’s surface analysis one step further.

Hitting on Shamar Stephen in the 7th round should be a BIG bonus for the Vikings draft class in 2014. Stephen was active for all 16 games and even started 3 spot-starts for injury. Backing up Linval Joseph at the nose, Stephen made his presence felt on the regular and did a good job flashing from time-to-time but plugging up the middle often.

Antone Exum and Jabari Price were both active most of the season and did a good job filling in on the special teams and giving this team a little depth in the defensive backfield when needed.

Looking back at the last three draft classes for the Minnesota Vikings, it becomes increasingly clear that Rick Spielman is figuring out his style for draft day and it’s leading to some pretty good success.

For more offseason analysis of Vikings Football including "The Top 50 Free Agency Targets For Minnesota" head over to VikingsJournal.com.

Ranking the Top Vikings Free Agent Targets: 25-21

Posted by: Updated: January 23, 2015 - 12:27 PM

The list rolls on and we almost hit our top twenty. Two running backs make the list—both of whom were on the verge of resurgence this year. Along with that is a souped-up version of Jasper Brinkley and two tight ends on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Before revealing who made the list from 25-21, you may want to check in on who ranked below these players:

As a reminder, the list doesn't rank the top players hitting free agency, but the top targets for the Vikings after accounting for potential cap hit, need at position, youth, injury history, talent level, schematic fit and so on. Good players will miss the list and a lot of role players will rank highly because of what the Vikings need. Still, everyone on the list is worth checking out to the Vikings.

25. Virgil Green, TE Denver Broncos

If you were going to pick one tight end from the Denver Broncos, Green would hardly be it. But the Vikings don’t need to spend the kind of cap space a premier tight end like Julius Thomas will command, even if the Denver Broncos were willing to let him go (and for the purposes of a piece like this, they hypothetically are).

The majority of Green’s appeal is not only that he’s young at 26, but quietly one of the most athletic players in the NFL. At 250 pounds, Green ran a 4.54 40-yard dash, a full 0.3 seconds faster than a player typical of his weight.

His 23 bench reps are 3 more than a player typical of his height and weight and his three-cone was 0.37 seconds faster than his frame profile. His short shuttle was faster than expected, and his vertical of 42.5” is astounding, and would be the highest score on the Vikings roster by two whole inches, beating out those currently tied for first—Xavier Rhodes, Jerick McKinnon and Brian Robison. It’s ten inches higher than those his height and weight average. His broad jump was 18 inches past expectation.

If one were to measure the distribution of expected combine scores against expectation, Virgil Green would rank 29th in the NFL out of every player to have walked through the NFL combine and second of all 215 tight ends since 1999 (behind Vernon Davis).

This isn’t meaningless—though the next one on the list (Anthony Becht) didn’t amount to much, Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron did, and Ben Watson and Dustin Keller (pre-knee injury) weren’t bad either. Vikings fans may remember Visanthe Shiancoe, who just makes the top ten absent Green, The hit rate of grabbing a 750-yard tight end in the top ten of athleticism scores is 50%, which is a bit better than the first two rounds of the draft have been for the 15 tight ends drafted between 2006 and 2010 (or the 24 drafted between 2003 and 2010).

Green isn’t a raw prospect waiting to be evaluated, however, he’s an NFL tight end with significant snaps in the league—1226 snaps since he was drafted.

Green had the misfortune of falling behind Daniel Fells on the depth chart his rookie year, Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme the following year and Julius Thomas the following years—but it isn’t entirely a lack of talent that did it. He hasn’t seen enough targets come his way, but he’s only dropped one pass in 24 catchable passes, per Pro Football Focus.

Speaking of the third-party grading company, they’re high on Green. On a per-snap basis, Green had the third-highest grade on the Denver offense this year, behind Demaryius Thomas and C.J. Anderson—ahead of Julius Thomas, Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders or even Orlando Franklin.

He’s a well-regarded run-blocker, finishing in the green every single year in run blocking.

Numbers and colors don’t mean much to the Vikings, and they shouldn’t, but it’s worth considering.

Green’s athleticism translates on the field, and he looks like one of the fastest players on the roster, and he certainly seems like the strongest on most of the snaps he plays (outside of the OL). He knows how to use his size in the blocking game and only looked outmatched once all year as a run blocker, against Miami.

Things that don’t show up in the Combine show up on the field. Green displays phenomenal balance and works well against cut blockers, also angling himself extremely well in the run game. He has an intuitive understanding of run lanes and tackling angles, and he deploys his assets well. These translate well to the passing game, too, and he’s stonewalled strong linebackers and quick defensive ends.

Green, for all his speed, isn’t an extraordinary receiving option. Though he’s caught nearly everything his way, the Broncos haven’t trusted him to run a wide variety of routes or seemingly incorporated option-routes in his repertoire. He doesn’t sit in zones well or read coverage like top-tier players do but he did show solid technique throughout his routes, including deception, cutting ability and explosiveness. His hands-technique could be better despite the low drop rate, but it’s good considering the wide range of passes he’s had to catch.

If Green picks up a surprise contract for quite a pretty penny that wouldn’t surprise me, but for now he’s one of the hidden gems in this free agency class. The only reason he’s ranked this low is because he’s a need at a rotational position and you can’t escape the fact that he’s never been the starter. Toby Gerhart got a very good contract, too, but he didn’t perform well for Jacksonville despite having good film and all the excuses in the world for why he didn’t get more snaps. Maybe Green is the same.



24. Charles Clay, TE Miami Dolphins

Clay is one of the more interesting tight ends in the league frm a usage standpoint. Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham are extraordinary receiving tight ends and Rob Gronkowski is the best example of a prototypical tight end you can find, but Clay is more of a “weapon”—he’s a poor man’s Colt Lyerla (if Colt Lyerla lived up to the hype).

Clay has lined up as a fullback (and often, much more than the motion-in-to-fullback you see from time to time with modern tight ends), running back, inline tight end, flex tight end and outside receiver. If Percy Harvin were bigger (and slower), he might have been a Charles Clay.

The issue with Clay (and seemingly with Harvin) is that he didn’t operate well as a premier receiving option, but an excellent complementary option. Because Clay isn’t as fast as high-level tight ends or the pristine route-runner that you may find at the position, he doesn’t fulfill the role he may be asked to 75 percent of the time he’s on the field.

For all his strength, the former Tulsa product doesn’t fight off of jams and chips very well, either, making route-running out of the in-line position a little bit of an issue. He also does a better job blocking with a lead than close-in with defensive linemen, but his blocking of linebackers is excellent.

He’s a very good lead blocker (meaning the Vikings can ditch the fullback position and platoon Rhett Ellison and Clay if they want to), though needs a little more work with his inline work. The thing that makes him special, despite his average speed, is his extremely high-level quickness and superior vision with the ball.

Clay makes things happen with the ball in his hand, which is why he’s ranked in the top five of tight ends in missed tackles per reception for the last two years. His hands are alright, but not bad and his routes aren’t necessarily crisp, but if the Vikings want to add a lot of zing to their offense, they could do a lot worse than Charles Clay.

He’s a better receiving option than Rhett Ellison, and a better blocking option than Kyle Rudolph (on many days) and Chase Ford. He can do more in the flats than any of them, even if he can’t push downfield like superior options at the same position. Perhaps the Vikings shouldn’t just look for a replacement as a substitute, but a complementary option who can be a sub should the need arise.



23. Mark Ingram, RB New Orleans Saints

Exploding on to the scene this year was first-round pick Mark Ingram, who seemingly made good on all the potential he promised coming out of Alabama. It’s not as if he was a complete, verifiable dud before this year. Averaging 3.9 yards a carry isn’t great, but he missed a significant portion of his rookie season due to a foot injury and had issues with that same injury in 2012.

Still, his performance was a huge surprise this year and he doesn’t have many carries to his name yet, so he may have a few more years than most running backs his age (25, already very young) and he represents the kind of power that the Vikings were missing most of the season.

Every year he’s been in the league, Ingram has increased his aggressiveness as a runner—a surprising trend given his play at Alabama. It was an issue when he entered the league, but it’s been all but resolved. It has allowed him to bring his impressive physical gifts, explosiveness and strength among them, together.

Ingram’s vision was surprisingly rough entering the league (or, considering his offensive line at Alabama, predictable) but has improved significantly since then. Even in 2013, he exhibited awareness and patience at the line and a good feel for the game. In 2014, that improved significantly, with fewer bad decisions and smarter footwork (which still needs work).

He’s not a burner and he won’t kill in space like a number of other running backs. He’s fluid and can be elusive, but he’ll always win more with power than with speed or quickness. That can really add something to an offense that either won’t have Adrian Peterson or won’t have him for a very long time. Ingram is very young and even showed comfort in the passing game as a receiver despite his limited experience there.

He’s probably a starting quality back, but the Saints love the running back by committee approach, and they won’t try to keep him if he costs too much.

But that creates two issues for the Vikings, and is a reason he’s ranked 23rd on this list and not 3rd: as a committee back, he was used more situationally than other potential running backs on the market, and that makes evaluation tough. Though the Saints didn’t have Darren Sproles to take pressure off of the running game, Pierre Thomas did a very good job as a receiving option and it hid the weaknesses Ingram may have had as a contributor in the passing game.

He improved as a pass blocker this year, but he’s still not very good at it, another thing these situational roles tend to hide.

Further, if the league views him as a starting quality back instead of a high-level power back, then his price tag will be far too high for the Vikings, who may not even need him for the next two years with Peterson in the fold.

His injuries are another worry, as they seem to be for many Alabama players. The foot issue needs to be looked at, and he wasn’t injury free this year either, though it was for another issue (hand).

Ingram finally played up to his talent and his late bloom may pay dividends for another team, but he still has issues that need to be cleaned up and could be too expensive. If he’s not, he’s a great young running back who just needs some more coaching to create a stellar pair with Jerick McKinnon.



22. Brandon Spikes, LB Buffalo Bills 

If you could get the best version of Jasper Brinkley, would you? The Patriots and the Bills have and would, and Buffalo finished as Football Outsiders’ second-best defense because of the smart use of a platoon system at linebacker despite missing Kiko Alonso.

Despite his lacking athleticism and tepid play as a coverage defender, Spikes found work as the premier two-down linebacker in the NFL. He navigates through traffic in the run game better than nearly anyone else in the NFL, in part because of having instincts that rival Patrick Willis’ and exceed Luke Kuechly’s.

He can get around blockers or through them just as well as anybody in the NFL; his stack-and-shed ability has made mincemeat of fullbacks and has embarrassed some of the better guards in the NFL. Larry Warford, Joel Bitonio, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Gabe Jackson have all had issue blocking Spikes at times and he’s found himself in the backfield a number of times.

He’s not the perfect run defender; he has issues going sideline to sideline and doesn’t contain outside runs very well. In Buffalo and Patriots, they schemed for that and it wasn’t an issue, but it does mean he doesn’t have the versatility to play outside linebacker in a pinch.

As a tackler, he not only hits with a lot of punch, but with good form. He rarely missed tackles as a Patriot and as a Bill only found real issue keeping his tackles clean against quicker receivers and tight ends in coverage; his run game tackling was solid because he could square up.

In coverage, he needed to be hidden and doesn’t present much in terms of providing man coverage in the passing game (and given the combined man-zone concepts the Vikings employ in match-pattern coverage that could be an issue), but he’s a fine zone defender so long as he doesn’t have to continuously carry receivers deep. His instincts cover for his lack of speed and his close to the ball works well enough for him to provide support.

In that sense, he can’t play the “robber” role, but he can occupy that spot on the field in coverage with a reasonable chance of preventing a reception.

The Vikings can upgrade from Jasper Brinkley with a two-down linebacker who shouldn’t cost much but should help Minnesota move to the top of the run defense rankings. For all the defensive improvement the Vikings made this year, they still ranked 24th in yards per attempt allowed and 26th in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA ratings.

Minnesota made most of its defensive mark in the passing game, and complementing that with a cheap situational linebacker to improve the run defense could be well worth it.



21. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB Indianapolis Colts

Old, busted and relatively unathletic, Bradshaw doesn’t seem like a salivating pickup. In 2007, he missed several practices and games due to a calf injury, left a game in 2008 with a neck injury and started his real issues in 2009. He had a chronic ankle sprain (only missed one game) and had surgery in the offseason to clean out the ankle.

Another big problem in 2009 was a set of screws put in both feet, and he fractured his right foot later that year. He suffered 2010 injuries to both his ankle and foot but didn’t miss games until 2011. He suffered further cracked bones in his left foot in 2011 and missed a number of games as a result, and missed games in 2012 and 2013 due to cracked bones in either foot. He then went on IR in 2013 as a result of a herniated vertebrae in his neck.

He then suffered a fractured fibula in 2014 and was put on injured reserve with six games left in the season.

So why should the Vikings be interested in him? Because substitutes don’t suffer from the same wear and tear that starters do, and he’ll probably be forced to sign for veteran’s minimum. Further, he was surprisingly effective for the Colts before his injury. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry and 2.9 yards after contact, showing the kind of powerful elusiveness that Marshawn Lynch does on a regular basis.

He doesn’t seemingly have the frame to be a power back (he was the lightning to Brandon Jacobs’ thunder in New York) or much of the film in New York to prove that he could fit in that role, but he did a good job in Indianapolis in his time there, converting 67 percent of his third-and-short attempts and 64 percent of them over the past several years.

It’s true that he’s not the strongest back out there, but he wins with vision, patience and leverage—far more than Matt Asiata did on a regular basis and with more speed. That isn’t to say Bradshaw is the most athletic back out there, but he has more physical tools to get the job done and a very integrated skillset that makes him much more fluid on the field than at the combine.

He has excellent burst at the line of scrimmage and though he doesn’t have the long speed to finish runs, he certainly has the acceleration to make runs successful.

Bradshaw also happens to be a bigger threat in the passing game than anyone on the roster, unless Jerick McKinnon improves at a lot of things very quickly. He consistently ranks in the top ten of yards per route run of running backs, something running backs don’t do from year to year, and he runs a wide variety of routes well, with fluidity, deception and separation—far more polished than almost any back in the NFL with significant snaps, and a much better runner than most of the ones who happen to be more polished.

He limits drops and makes the most of the field situation, grabbing the first down, even if he won’t go for 70 yards on every play. A smart player in the passing game, Bradshaw can be used to block or catch and is savvy enough to run a complicated option system or simply be an outlet back. He adjusts to the ball well in the air and has an intuitive understanding of positioning.

No team should sign Bradshaw if they want him as a feature back, but a team looking to improve its depth could do a lot worse than Bradshaw.

Head over to Vikings Journal to get the latest on the how the Seahawks have used the Vikings as a stepping stone, how the Super Bowl is a remnant of Minnesota's legacy and a profile on potential Vikings draft pick Devante Parker.

Arif Hasan is a senior writer for Vikings Journal and the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory (currently being revamped until Monday). He is a former political consultant and a Minnesota native.

VikesCentric: Mock Draft 2.0

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: January 22, 2015 - 10:27 AM

Now that we know the first round order for 30 of 32 teams as well as all the underclassmen who have declared it’s time to jump headfirst into mock draft season. This is my initial full first-round mock draft of the offseason with several more likely to follow between now and Draft Day.

The draft begins April 30 so between now and then I have plenty of time to continue waffling about who will go where – beginning with the top overall pick. In my first mock draft, I had the Buccaneers taking Marcus Mariota and I felt pretty certain about it. Then I watched him struggle a little in the National Championship game and did what came easiest: overreacted. Or did I? This is going to bug me from now until Draft Day. I’ll probably go back and forth because neither Mariota nor Jameis Winston feels like a slam dunk right now.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
My current feeling is that concern over Winston’s track record of off-field problems will ultimately be outweighed by the fact that he’s simply a better quarterback than Mariota. Obviously, if Winston comes off poorly in his interviews with teams throughout the draft process it will raise bright red flags. If that happens, I’ll probably slide him down in my mock drafts. Until then, I’ll insert the most talented player at the most important position in this draft class at the top of the draft board. Stay tuned.

2. Tennessee Titans – Leonard Williams, DE, USC
For the second mock in a row, I have Williams going to the Titans. As I’ve pointed out before, this is a critical spot in the first round. The Titans could very well opt for Mariota here, but they also might view him as a quarterback that needs to sit and watch for a year and instead go with Williams, who some feel is the most talented player on the entire board and will provide immediate bang for the buck.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
I’m sticking with Gregory to the Jaguars at No. 3 for the second mock draft in a row. The Jaguars don’t need a quarterback so they’ll pass on Mariota. If Gregory goes second overall, the Jags will jump all over Williams. If Williams goes second, as I have him doing, Shane Ray from Missouri is another edge-rushing option here. Wide receiver Amari Cooper could also make a lot of sense, as Blake Bortles needs a big-time talent to play catch with.

4. Oakland Raiders – Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
In my first mock draft I had Cooper sliding to 10 and going to the Rams. Who am I kidding? The Raiders have never been able to resist tantalizing skill position players of Cooper’s ilk. Cooper would certainly look good on the business end of Derek Carr passes. I would not be surprised at all if this is where the draft’s top receiver winds up.

5. Washington Redskins – Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Washington ranked in the lower third of the NFL in sacks this season with 36. They could use offensive line help as well, and I had them going with an offensive tackle in my initial mock draft. However, an elite edge rusher like Ray seems just as likely.

6. New York Jets – Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Here you go, Jets fans -- your next quarterback of the future. That is, unless Chip Kelly and the Eagles make them an offer they can’t refuse. The Eagles would have to move all the way up from 20, so they might need to trade twice. Kelly reportedly wants Mariota badly and since he’s in charge of personnel moves in Philly now, he can make it happen. The farther Mariota slides, the better the chance the Eagles will throw in a bid. In this mock draft, however, I am not including trades.

7. Chicago Bears – Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Second mock draft same as the first. I’m pretty convinced the Bears will be going defense with this pick. There are several edge rushers available here that wouldn’t be considered a reach in terms of value, but Collins is easily the top safety in this class and brings a dimension the Bears have been lacking in their secondary. Chicago finished 30th in pass defense this past season.

8. Atlanta Falcons – Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida
Time for more waffling. Speaking of which, who doesn’t like waffles? Mmmm… waffles. I’m hungry. Where was I? Oh yeah, in my first mock, I had the Falcons selecting Vic Beasley followed by the Giants taking Fowler. I’m switching things around this time. Both picks would make sense for both teams.

9. New York Giants – Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson
Like I said, this could just as easily be Fowler here. Beasley is the better pass rusher right now, while Fowler is more versatile. Either way they go, they’ll be getting a good player who will help immediately.

10. St. Louis Rams – T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh
The Rams’ biggest needs seem to all be on offense. They need a quarterback, but unless Mariota slips this far, that’s not an option here. They need wide receivers, and I had them taking Amari Cooper in my first mock. But he’s no longer available at 10 in this mockery. Devante Parker is another possibility here. However, offensive line is just as much of a need and there will be talented wideouts still available in round two. The Rams could easily go with Brandon Scherff at this spot, but Clemmings is more of a prototypical tackle. He could probably start right away -- likely at right tackle -- because neither Greg Robinson nor Joe Barksdale had banner 2014 seasons at tackle for the Rams.

11. Minnesota Vikings – Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
See what I did here? In my first mock draft, I had the Vikings selecting wide receiver Devante Parker. Since that mock, I wrote a piece suggesting Scherff would be a great fit for the Vikings. And now, almost as if by fate, both are still on the board at 11. Actually, I had things play out this way to make a point. If things play out this way and both are sitting there I think the Vikings will grab the big lineman over the speedy wide receiver. Both are needs. Neither would be a reach here, but Scherff is almost a bargain at this point since he’s widely regarded as a top-10 player in this draft. I could see the Vikings moving him to left guard immediately, which would fill a significant need. There will be more wide receivers to choose from later in the draft and free agency is always an option. Plus if they sign Duron Carter in February, wide receiver becomes a slightly less pressing need – not to suggest he’d be a slam dunk “solution” at the position.

12. Cleveland Browns – Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
If Josh Gordon is no longer a member of the Browns on draft day, I expect them to take a wide receiver either here or with the 19th pick that they acquired from the Bills. For now, I’m sticking with Shelton as the pick to provide immediate help up the middle against the run. The Browns finished dead last in run defense in 2014.

13. New Orleans Saints – Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami (Fla.)
The Saints need offensive line help and there are a lot of good ones left here. I had them going with Cedric Ogbuehi in my first mock draft, but now I think he’ll fall farther than this. Flowers gives New Orleans a massive tackle that’s equally adept at run and pass-blocking and good enough to go a few spots higher than this to the Giants, Rams or potentially even the Vikings.

14. Miami Dolphins – Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington
The Dolphins are a tough team for me to peg. I could see them going with either offensive or defensive line. They could also go running back or wide receiver. However, a lot of teams, including the Dolphins might very well have Thompson ranked as the top player left on the board at this point. He’s as versatile as they come and could step right into the Dolphins’ lineup at weakside linebacker and make an instant difference.

15. San Francisco 49ers – Devante Parker, WR, Louisville
I had the 49ers going defense with this pick in my first mock, but the more I think about it, wide receiver feels like a bigger need for them. Not that it all has to be about need, but Michael Crabtree is leaving via free agency and Anquan Boldin is going to be 35 next October. Colin Kaepernick needs some weapons and Parker is the best wideout left on the board in a draft that’s fairly loaded at the position.

16. Houston Texans – Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
The Texans could sure use a quarterback, but they’re not taking one here. They might find one in free agency and then grab another in a latter round. They might also think about taking a wide receiver with this pick. However, Waynes is the top corner in the draft and the Texans might go that route rather than taking the fourth wide receiver off the board. The Texans finished 21st in pass defense this past season.

17. San Diego Chargers – Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Cornerback, offensive line, defensive line... which is it going to be? Might the Chargers think about Melvin Gordon here? I bet they will. In the end, I think they’ll settle on shoring up the interior of their defensive line with a guy like Goldman.

18. Kansas City Chiefs – Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
The Chiefs would love it if the draft fell this way. No team needs more help at wide receiver than they do. Last I checked they still didn’t have a wide receiver touchdown this past season.

19. Cleveland Browns (from Buffalo) – Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
The run on wide receivers resumes. As I suggested with the Browns’ pick at 12, they’re leaving Round 1 with a wide receiver. Funchess might also make a good tight end, but in this scenario he will stay at wideout and be the replacement for the aforementioned Gordon, who might be selling cars again or wearing a different team’s jersey by April.

20. Philadelphia Eagles – Marcus Peters, CB, Washington
The word on the street is that the Eagles are focused on using this pick to help their secondary; they finished 31st in pass defense in 2014. I had them taking Waynes in my first mock draft, but he went four spots earlier in this mock. Peters will likely be the second corner off the board so this feels like a good spot for him.

21. Cincinnati Bengals – Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon
Armstead goes about 6-8, 290 and I have a hunch he’ll turn some heads at the combine. The Bengals could use some freakishly athletic defenders. Actually, who couldn’t? I don’t see this guy sliding out of the first round. The Bengals might not be able to resist.

22. Pittsburgh Steelers – Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
The Steelers need defense. That’s no secret. The Steel Curtain just ain’t what it used to be. There’s a good chance Brown won’t slide this far, but if he does this feels like a great fit. As an added bonus, they’ll be sniping the Lions, whom I’m guessing would love to draft Brown.

23. Detroit Lions – Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
In this scenario, I have the Lions losing Ndamukong Suh to free agency. That would leave a fairly massive hole in the middle of their defense – one that could be plugged by the likes of Phillips – or Malcom Brown if the Steelers don’t grab him.

24. Arizona Cardinals – Bud Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky
This could very well be the spot where Melvin Gordon’s slide down the draft board ends. Then again, someone might remind the Cardinals that they made the playoffs despite using a collection of running backs this past season and they also need a lot of help rushing the passer. They had 35 sacks this past season – 24th in the league.

25. Carolina Panthers – La’El Collins, OT, LSU
If the Panthers don’t use this pick on an offensive lineman, I’ll buy everyone I’m watching the draft with a beer. Collins is one of many worthy offensive tackles with first-round grades. If it’s not him, it will be another lineman.

26. Baltimore Ravens – Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No, I didn’t forget about him. With Justin Forsett likely leaving Baltimore via free agency, the Ravens will be in the market for a running back. Truthfully, I suspect the Ravens, Cardinals, Cowboys or Seahawks will trade up and draft Gordon earlier than this – maybe in the top-15 so they make sure the Chargers don’t have a shot at him. But again, I’m not incorporating made-up trades into this mock.

27. Dallas Cowboys – Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest
The Cowboys might find themselves looking for a running back at this point, depending on the DeMarco Murray situation. However, I’m certain they need help in the secondary after finishing 26th against the pass, and Johnson would appear to be a fit as the next best corner on most draft boards.

28. Denver Broncos – Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M
It sounds like Peyton Manning is coming back, which means the Broncos would be wise to add another big body up front to help protect his aging bones. Ogbuehi would make some sense.

29. Indianapolis Colts – Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
I could absolutely see the Colts going defense with this pick. However, when your team is being built around the best young quarterback in the league and he likes to throw 45 passes per game it makes sense to give him more weapons.

30. Green Bay Packers – Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State
I resisted the urge to have Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams be the pick in this spot. I still might make that happen in subsequent mock drafts because I think the fit would be perfect. That said, the Packers could definitely use some help at inside linebacker.

31. New England Patriots – Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Oklahoma
I reviewed a lot of tape and it looks like DGB is equally adept at catching under-inflated balls as he is at catching balls with proper inflation. Thus, the fit seems ideal.

32. Seattle Seahawks – Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State
I think this pick will be labeled a reach by some, but I have to say I was impressed by Smith every time I saw him play this season. He impressed again in the Big Ten Championship game with 137 yards and three touchdowns against Wisconsin and I suspect his stock is on the rise. Sammie Coates is another possibility here. Russell Wilson needs some more wide receivers. That much seems obvious. If Marshawn Lynch isn’t brought back, however, the Seahawks could opt for a running back like Todd Gurley.

That’s enough mock drafting for this month. More to come in February. Now it’s your turn. Who do you see the Vikings taking and how do you feel the first round will play out? Leave your comments below or, better yet, take a stab at doing mock drafts on a Vikings Journal blog if you’ve set one up. Happy mocking!

Go to VikingsJournal.com for a look at the social media ugliness in the wake of last weekend’s playoff games and more on the Vikings Stadium vs. birds controversy.

Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData, head writer at VikingsJournal.com, co-host of the Fantasy Football Pants Party at 1500ESPN.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Ranking the Top Vikings Free Agent Targets: 30-26

Posted by: Updated: January 21, 2015 - 11:51 AM

The Vikings have a number of directions to go in entering free agency, and any number of targets make sense for the young team. The list is made with a few caveats in mind, first of which is that it's not a list of the best players in free agency, but which targets—accounting for need, cost and expected use—make the most sense for Minnesota.

That means waffling on what happens with Adrian Peterson, looking at players with an eye towards youth, and leaving off players the Vikings may very well target. It also means leaving off interesting restricted free agents and ignoring the draft, simply because it's not predictable. There are theoretically good additions (Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul or Julius Thomas) who could find themselves on the team, but they didn't make the lsit because the likelihood is low and the cost is high.

For a fuller explanation, check out the bottom of the list, which ranks the first five to make the cut, starting from 55. You can check out all the rankings below:

In this part of the list, players ranked 30-26, we see the first big name that Vikings fans have connected in free agency, as well as two low-snap players that are nevertheless critical to the function of the team. Beyond that, more players from the secondary have been included.

30. Sterling Moore, CB/S Dallas Cowboys

Sterling Moore has spent more time on the field and has a number of slot snaps to his name, but is also a projection because those slot snaps still don’t total a significant enough amount to say he’s a standout nickel player.

Still, Moore is a key part of Dallas’ surprising defensive performance. Moore, originally an Oakland Raider before becoming a New England Patriot (with key plays in the 2011 AFC Championship Game), has experience at both safety and cornerback. After the Patriots waived him, the Cowboys picked him up, cut him, and re-signed him partway through the 2013 season to provide depth.

Come 2014, Moore was an integral part of the Dallas defense and found himself targeted less often than the other two cornerbacks on the roster on a per-snap basis. He allowed no touchdowns and recorded eight pass deflections.

Though his film wasn’t as impressive as Orlando Scandrick’s, Moore proved to be a starting quality player at three positions—slot, free safety and boundary corner. The Patriots even used him as a linebacker at times. He defends the run well, and though undersized, does a good job matching up with a variety of receivers.

Moore has the requisite speed and agility (and it shows up on film) to play the variety of roles he’s been asked to and generally plays with good instincts, reading well enough to break to them when familiar route concepts present themselves.

Though more athletic than the average cornerback, he’s not a physical “freak” and can get burned—Davante Adams’ fantastic run for the Packers in the playoffs came against Moore. Though he’s targeted less than the other cornerbacks, those targets tended to do more damage as receivers broke free deep or leveraged against his momentum.

At the moment, he does a better job reading receivers than quarterbacks and needs to improve on that if he’s to be a better zone player, but that’s not to say he’s terrible at it. Moore is one of the more underappreciated players on the list, but he certainly has his fair share of warts. He needs seasoning, but could be had for cheap and may challenge Captain Munnerlyn later on in camp.

It wouldn’t be an enormous surprise if he won the spot outright, even against a draftee. Though Moore has been less than impressive up until this last year, he played very well at the several positions he was asked to play over the season, even if there are occasional highlight plays against him.

Munnerlyn this last year allowed a passer rating of 104.5 when thrown at, 18th-worst in the NFL among slot receivers. Moore ranked 34 at 93.8. Though he allowed more yards per snap in coverage (ranked 6th-worst among slot receivers), he did much more good than bad than someone like Munnerlyn, garnering a +6.3 Pro Football Focus grade overall—22nd in the NFL (Munnerlyn ranked 37th).

Moore’s coverage numbers are the result of a scheme that encourages corners to give up short yardage in order to prevent long yardage, as well as one or two highlight runs on him. The eight pass deflections don’t happen by accident and he’s generally a good run defender to boot.

It also helps that he’s the youngest player on this list, at 24 (and he will be 25 when the season starts). The Vikings need players who are young and have shown both coachability and moments of excellent play. If he can be cleaned up, he’ll be a great long-term investment.

29. Isa Abdul-Quddus, S Detroit Lions

Continuing the theme of young players, 25-year-old Isa Abdul-Quddus was an undrafted free agent in 2011 and floated in and out of the New Orleans Saints lineup before the Lions picked him up and were forced to play him in 2014.

Quddus has never been much more than a supersub or rotational backup, but he did start a number of games for the Lions and has played significant snaps in most years (100+ in three of his four years and 300+ snaps in two of those years) he’s played in the NFL, without losing much.

The good thing for him has been constant improvement in terms of technique, instinct and even athleticism. Abdul-Quddus is a solidly sized safety with a lot of strength and good movement ability, and all-around is a much more athletically gifted safety than most that are available.

His coverage skills have improved considerably since joining the league and he closes quickly and decisively on the ball in zone coverage and can hold his own in the limited man coverage opportunities he’s been given.

Early in his career, he didn’t play to his size when it came to tackling and hitting, and he still has issues with that. Technique in tackling has led to a good number of missed tackles, but he has improved on it in his time in the NFL. This is a similar problem to Robert Blanton, but Abdul-Quddus has shown an ability to improve on that. He certainly doesn’t lack functional strength like Blanton seems to, but tackling technique and drive.

His awareness may limit him at times and slow down his reaction times against the run, but in coverage he’s been sound, indicating that he may simply have needed time to adjust to NFL speed and schemes. He’s improved in his ability to play against the run as his time in the league has increased, though perhaps not enough to be considered reliable yet.

His coverage statistics are good (not amazing after accounting for sample size) and doesn’t seem to have huge missteps on film, so he’s definitely worth a look.

Quddus has had a low number of snaps in the NFL, but the reason he makes the list is because he’ll likely sign somewhere for league minimum, and he’s one of the better backup safeties in the NFL (a position that’s notoriously shallow, like quarterback and guard), meaning he’s good value at a position and role of need—backup safety.

28. Henry Hynoski, FB New York Giants

There’s no need to rehash the fact that the Vikings will be looking at fullbacks and need to determine whether or not they can bring Jerome Felton back after he activated his free agency option and if Zach Line is an appropriate replacement. As it stands, the position doesn’t have an answer.

Hynoski is the best fullback available in free agency. That’s not a huge gamechanger or anything, but Peterson runs much better with a fullback than without and it’s been a big part of Norv Turner’s schemes for a while. Beyond that, the running game being coordinated by Jeff Davidson (recently retained) has a generous dose of fullback play in the schemes.

Even the best fullback won’t cost much, and Hynoski’s price tag won’t be more than $2,500,000. He doesn’t just lead block well for the New York Giants, but he’s been an excellent pass protector in the last three years and an alright route-runner that saw his usage in the passing game plummet under the new offensive coordinator (only running 21 routes).

Nevertheless, he has decent if not spectacular hands and some ability to adjust to poorly thrown balls in the air.

Still, his appeal comes from consistently good blocking—about as good as Jerome Felton’s—and some additional ability with the ball in the air, though he’s not great at running it. He’s also a superior pass protector to Felton and should be considered a decent all-around option that has a bit of an edge on Felton that will come cheaply.

27. Mike Iupati, G San Francisco 49ers

Iupati is a popular name among fans of teams who need help at guard, and why not? He’s a dominating run blocker for one of the best offensive lines in football. Moreover, he’s coming out of one of the most complex blocking schemes in the NFL and has excelled at it—a scheme matched only in complexity by the Vikings’ own, incidentally, and a very similar one at that.

He’s an aggressive, strong and agile guard, who has almost all of the technique he needs to have down. He plays intelligently and moves behind the lines on pulls as well as he does into the second level to take out linebackers. He takes on the most difficult assignments a guard can take in the running game, and is a lynchpin to unique run plays the 49ers run, with complex trap assignments or extended pin-and-pulls.

With all of this, he’s only 27 years old, with three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod under his belt. So why is he ranked 27th?

Pass protection.

It’s not as if he doesn’t have the required skills, knowledge or tools to protect the passer well; in some games, he’s an absolute blanket. He held one of the best defensive linemen of this past year, Fletcher Cox, to one hurry in their matchup and finished the season blanking Calais Campbell. In 2013, Star Lotulelei couldn’t pressure the quarterback once against him, and Kawann Short, Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards were held out of the passing game as well.

He’s had good moments, but they can be overshadowed by some of his less spectacular efforts. Last year, he gave up seven sacks, and he ranked 50th (of 59) guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency, per Pro Football Focus. A lot of that play was characterized by overaggressiveness and reaching, and Iupati was impatient in pass protection, which was often exploited by savvy defensive tackles, especially those with flexibility.

On the other hand, it’s probably not an accident that Iupati’s pass blocking numbers looked so bad in the past two years, but not in the years before that (where they were about average, if a little worse).

In Iupati’s first three years in the NFL, he blocked for Alex Smith, who was a more predictable passer to block for and spent a little less time in the pocket before throwing the ball. Smith, generally speaking, held on to the ball longer than most quarterbacks, but still didn’t hold on to it as long as Colin Kaepernick does, who trusts his legs long enough to make a play. Kaepernick also moves around much more in the pocket, making the drop unpredictable.

Given that, and an ability to integrate athletic talent into technical ability and on-field performance, there’s good reason to believe that Iupati can become even better with the right line coach. His run blocking is dominant enough that he could be a top five guard by only hitting average pass protection capability.

He’s 27, so he’s not as young as would be ideal for a guy who technically needs work, but he’s definitely young enough for an impact starter, which is what he can be for the Vikings. If Minnesota does in fact return Adrian Peterson, the compound effects of massively improving the running game are well worth it.

The biggest issue may be that Iupati is going to be paid above his performance level, and that, along with pass protection issues, drops him down the list for me. I would not be surprised if Iupati pulled down $8,000,000 a year on his new contract, and that’s a little rich (but not prohibitively) for me.

26. Brett Kern, P Tennessee Titans

Punters may not be sexy, but a bad one can remind people how quickly they can change the game. On average, the difference between a bad punter and a good one is about 35 yards a game or two points. That may not sound like much to some people (alternatively, some people may find that to be quite a lot), but there are very few positions, aside from quarterback, that can affect the point totals that much.

 The difference between the best defense and the worst defense in the NFL this year, on a per-drive basis, was 16.85 points. Given that there are only 11 defensive players on the field at any one time, the average defensive player—assuming he is the worst at his position—may be responsible for 1.5 points given up in a game versus the best player at his position.

That gets further diluted when considering the fact that subpackages and defensive line rotations really make that more likely to be out of 13 to 15 or so than 11 and it’s pretty clear that punters can affect the game defensively far more than a single defensive player can. While it’s true that the coverage units and opposing return units play a role, no bigger influence exists than the punter himself.

With that in mind, the Vikings may have the worst punter in the NFL in Jeff Locke. It’s true that he improved over the course of the season, but that isn’t to say he was good—even if one looks at the final four weeks, he was a mediocre punter. Beyond that, it’s not as if the previous two years didn’t happen; he has consistently been a bad punter and it’s unlikely that a small improvement—one that showed little more than being simply “not the worst”—means much from an evaluation standpoint and projecting future performance.

His hangtime has been an issue all year, final games included, and he has difficulty managing short field situations. When looking at his ranks in key punter statistics—net yards, touchback-to-inside-20 ratio, downed punts, percent returned, gross yards, etc. Locke ranks last on average. When looking at subjective evaluations, like those at Pro Football Focus, Locke ranks dead last.

Even in the details, Locke is off. When measuring get-off time—the time from snap to the point of contact with the ball on the kick—Locke is found wanting. The average punter will have a get-off time at 1.3 seconds, usually below. Jeff Locke’s is closer to 1.35. For comparison, undrafted free agent punter Kasey Redfern (who isn’t with a team right now), averaged 1.25 seconds in the preseason.

While the natural assumption whenever a punt is blocked is to blame the protection (and it certainly didn’t help this year against the Dolphins), there’s almost always an element of blame that goes to the punter. One reason Ray Guy apocryphally never had a punt blocked (although in actuality has three recorded in his 14-year career)—an extremely quick get-off time.

Brett Kern has none of the problems Jeff Locke has. He’s arguably a top ten punter and is certainly a top fifteen punter, depending on who you ask. His punting statistics and third-party grades align with that, as do those details—get-off time, hang time, distance, accuracy, the likelihood of mistake and so on. 36 of Jeff Locke’s 130 punts inside Minnesota territory from 2013-2014 went under 40 yards. 18 of Kern’s 135 did.

Both Kern and Locke have nine touchbacks, but Locke has had far fewer opportunities to do so, with 49 of his punts downed inside the 20 to Brett Kern’s 64. Kern ranked sixth in net yards per attempt last year, while Locke ranked 20th. While Locke’s average rank through all those stats mentioned was dead last, Kern’s was 14th last year and 10th the year before.

Kern is also 28, and given punter lifespans, that’s not too much different than investing in a proven 25-year old at another position—the possibility of signing a three-contract player should prove tantalizing to the Vikings, who may not want to “waste” another draft pick on a punter, when a proven one exists on the market.

Head over to Vikings Journal to get the latest on the odd bird controversy at the stadium, Rick Spielman's "8 specific needs" and a take on the local reaction to the Packers' stunning loss against Seattle.

Arif Hasan is a senior writer for Vikings Journal and the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory. He is a former political consultant and a Minnesota native.

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