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:
- Players ranked 55-51
- Players ranked 50-46
- Players ranked 45-41
- Players ranked 40-36
- Players ranked 35-31
- Players ranked 30-26
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.