The earlier rankings aren't too hard to find, and it wouldn't hurt to get a refresher:
- Players ranked 55-51
- Players ranked 50-46
- Players ranked 45-41
- Players ranked 40-36
- Players ranked 35-31
- Players ranked 30-26
- Players ranked 25-21
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.