Note: Ahead of free agency next week, when formal talks with other teams can begin March 16 before signings start March 18, we’ll preview the reasons for and against re-signing the Vikings’ top five unrestricted free agents and give you our projection.
No. 3: Cornerback Trae Waynes
Even though Waynes’ three seasons as a starter in Minnesota have been more solid than spectacular, the 11th overall pick in the 2015 draft heads into free agency as a potentially valuable commodity: a 27-year-old cornerback who’s started in one of the NFL’s premier defenses and possesses the kinds of athletic traits that might convince a team it’s worth exploring whether he can take the next step. Waynes, who stands six feet tall and ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash coming out of Michigan State, figures to have a market in free agency that could keep the cap-strapped Vikings from bringing him back on a new deal.
Reasons to re-sign
There’s a significant level of uncertainty in the Vikings’ secondary, with Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris heading into free agency, Mike Hughes recovering from a broken neck vertebra and Xavier Rhodes potentially moving on after a disappointing season that could make the 29-year-old a cap casualty. If the Vikings want to retain an established cover corner, it might make sense to pay Waynes, who doesn’t turn 28 until July and made incremental improvements in coverage last season. He’s established himself as a solid run defender, was penalized just once (after being flagged seven times the year before) and allowed a career-low 72.2 passer rating when he was targeted by opposing quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Reasons to move on
Coach Mike Zimmer works as closely with the Vikings’ defensive backs as any position on the roster, and the team has undoubtedly seen enough by now to determine whether it wants to keep Waynes. The fact they’re letting a 27-year-old corner get this close to free agency, after years of investing to keep their other young starters, says something, and Waynes might be interested in seeing what the market will bear for his services after playing five years in Minnesota. The fact he was the 11th pick in the draft meant he missed out on the more lucrative fifth-year bonuses available to the top 10 picks, and Waynes figures to have interest in maximizing what might be his best shot at a big contract.
Unless the Vikings clear up cap room and suddenly decide to make a generous multi-year offer to Waynes, the cornerback will sign elsewhere and get a fresh start with a new team. He heads into free agency with a marketable mix of experience, relative youth and athletic ability. Especially if there’s a team out there convinced it can get more out of Waynes — particularly as a cover corner — the Vikings could decide to let their 2015 first-rounder walk after signing three members of that draft class to long-term deals.