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