Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
It’s been 16 days now since free agency opened across the NFL. Here’s your comprehensive report on how the Vikings have operated in the market over the past two-and-a-half weeks.
We’re inevitably hearing a lot about franchise tags these days. On Monday, the window opened for all 32 NFL teams to stamp one player on their roster whose contract is set to expire with a franchise tag. The move allows organizations to more easily retain their premier talent. And while the Vikings have no real candidates to tag this year – don't forget, last season the team was able to complete long-term contract extensions for Adrian Peterson and John Sullivan – franchise tag designations across the NFL could ultimately have a ripple effect on general manager Rick Spielman’s offseason plans.
The deadline for teams to apply their 2012 franchise tag comes March 5, eight days before free agency opens.
With that in mind, here are four big-name players whose contract situations could impact the Vikings’ free agency hopes.
Drew Brees, Saints quarterback
Yep, New Orleans is currently having difficulty getting a new deal done for Brees, who has thrown for an average of 4,732 yards and 34 touchdowns in his six seasons as a Saint. And yes, this could have some small trickle-down effect on the Vikings.
First things first: Brees is not leaving New Orleans. But if the Saints continue to have trouble in their negotiations, they may have to use their franchise tag on Brees, which would then preclude them from tagging either guard Carl Nicks or receiver Marques Colston. Which is good news for the Vikings, who are in the market for a free agent receiver and would love to see the shelf stocked with as many talented pass-catching targets as possible.
It’s worth nothing that even if Brees gets a contract extension, some reports seem to indicate Nicks would be a more likely candidate than Colston to be franchised by New Orleans. And while the Saints will likely make efforts to keep Colston, it’s very possible he will hit the open market in three weeks, a 28-year-old with 449 career catches for 6,240 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs receiver
As we mentioned Monday, Kansas City’s signing of cornerback Stanford Routt means the Chiefs won’t be using their franchise tag on corner Brandon Carr, thus bumping Bowe to the front of the line for that designation. This does two things that could impact the Vikings. First, it means Carr will likely be a free agent worth pursuing if he can be had for the right price. He would certainly help bolster the Vikings' secondary. Second, it means Bowe would remain a Chief in 2012, taking him off the free agent receiver shelf. That's not good for the Vikings, who want to have as many receivers to pick from when they begin shopping in March. Still, don't discount the possibility that Kansas City doesn't use the franchise tag on anyone and instead allows Bowe to test the free agent market.
Dashon Goldson, 49ers safety
San Francisco has two talented defensive backs set to hit free agency next month: Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers. One of those two players will almost certainly get the franchise tag. But if the other one hits the open market, the Vikings would be wise to do their due diligence as they continue to rebuild a secondary that was atrocious in 2011. The needs at safety are obvious. The Vikings are almost certain to let Tyrell Johnson go in free agency. And the situation with free agent Husain Abdullah, a player the coaching staff loves, is complicated given Abdullah’s worrisome concussion problems. That leaves the Vikings with Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Eric Frampton as their only definite returning safeties with a major upgrade desired.
Goldson is coming off a Pro Bowl season. And while he has made it clear he wants to remain in San Francisco, contract negotiations with the organization haven’t always gone smoothly. Last year, Goldson settled for a one-year deal when a long-term extension couldn’t be agreed upon.
Rogers, meanwhile, had a solid 2011 season for a resurgent 49ers squad that finished fourth in the NFL in total defense and almost made the Super Bowl. Critics will point to his troubles containing Victor Cruz in the NFC Championship game as proof that his skills don’t quite match up to his probable asking price. But Rogers is better than any defensive back on the Vikings’ current roster. So perspective is needed when evaluating his flaws.
Mike Wallace, Steelers receiver
Wallace has made 132 catches for 2,450 yards and 18 TDs the past two seasons and not long ago seemed like the type of top-tier playmaker that Pittsburgh wouldn’t possibly let get away. But the Steelers have salary cap concerns and may not be able to afford keeping Wallace, even with the franchise tag. Pittsbugh also has enough solid depth at receiver with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in the fold that it won’t go into an all-out panic if Wallace gets away.
However, keep in mind that Wallace is a restricted free agent, meaning any team that wants to sign him would have to surrender a first-round 2012 pick to Pittsburgh to do so. And the Vikings, with the No. 3 overall pick, are highly, highly, highly unlikely (translation: it ain’t happening) to surrender a draft spot with that much value for Wallace, who will also demand a huge paycheck. But the situation certainly registers as intriguing and conversation-worthy around the water cooler. After all, Wallace is only 25 years old. He’s a proven playmaker and he has the skills to stretch the field vertically. In truth, he’s just the type of player the Vikings' offense could really use. If only the complicated business side of things didn’t have to get in the way.
The Vikings have signed offensive lineman Pat Brown to a one-year contract extension. Brown was set to become an exclusive rights free agent next month. But that designation basically means that, due to Brown's two-year tenure in the NFL, the Vikings would have been the only team in the league able to sign him for 2012. Which they have now done.
Brown saw limited action last season, playing mostly on special teams. He was originally undrafted out of Central Florida in 2009.
The Vikings now have 17 players due to become free agents when the market opens on the afternoon of March 13. The most notable players on that list are linebackers E.J. Henderson and Erin Henderson, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson and receiver Devin Aromashodu.
Running back Lorenzo Booker and linebacker Kenny Onatulu are both set to become restricted free agents, which will give the Vikings an opportunity to match offers that come from other teams.
Meetings are taking place at Winter Park this week with the Vikings planning a detailed player-by-player evaluation of their current roster. As they perform their in-house review, we’re following suit and delivering our own snapshot evaluation of each position group.
The Vikings wrapped up their final (thank goodness) practice of the season on Friday. Afterward, coach Leslie Frazier talked about the 17 players who will become unrestricted free agents after Sunday's game against Chicago at Mall of America Field.
"It's a tough deal when you have guys that can help you," Frazier said. "But in this age of free agency, most guys that can still can perform are going to want to explore. We'll do whatever we can with those guys that we really want to keep here, to keep here.
"But when guys have been contributors to your team and have helped you to get through what we've had to go through, you'd like to find a way to keep those guys around, believing that you're going to get it turned, and they're going to be a part of that turn. But you wish nothing but the best for every player who becomes a free agent. Hopefully, it works out that they're a part of what we're doing. But if not and they end up somewhere else, you want to see them succeed."
The 17 players who will become unrestricted free agents are: FS Husain Abdullah, MLB E.J. Henderson, OLB Erin Henderson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, WR Devin Aromashodu, RB Lorenzo Booker, CB Benny Sapp, S Tyrell Johnson, LB Xavier Adibi, WR Greg Camarillo, DT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion, TE Jim Kleinsasser, OL Scott Kooistra, LS Matt Katula, S Jarrad Page and QB Sage Rosenfels.
Frazier was asked to evaluate E.J. Henderson, who has been with the team since 2003 and has been a starter since 2004.
"I think he's done a lot of good things," Frazier said. "After the bye, he really came on for us. He struggled a little bit early in the year, battling with injuries. But after the bye, he came back and had played better. That's in large part due to his health. We did some things to take some reps off him as well. His leadership has helped us to get through a tough season and his play has been very good for us. There are some things that he would like to do better, but overall I think he did a good job."
Asked if he thinks Henderson can still be a starting middle linebacker next season, Frazier said, "I think he does. The thing he's dealing with now is just staying healthy. The biggest thing is to stay healthy enough to participate and practice and get what he needs from practice and a game. But he can definitely still be a 16-game starter."
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