We're finally at the top five! Check out the best possible players the Vikings could sign in free agency to provide immediate and long-term help to a team ostensibly on the rise.

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5. Akeem Ayers, Linebacker, New England Patriots

This is probably an unusual selection, and it’s easy to sympathize with anyone who has multiple people from the previous list (like #6 Byron Maxwell) ahead of Ayers, but there may be something special with Ayers. The former Patriots/Titans linebacker possibly represents something that is rare on the free agency market: someone who is young, cheap and can play at the highest level at his position.

Ayers isn’t pristine goods, as it were. He was traded to the Patriots on the cheap for a reason, and he played 12 snaps in the Super Bowl, finishing a run of six games with fewer than half the defensive snaps. That’s not a product of poor play so much as a return from injury of Dont’a Jones, a Patriots defensive staple.

When Ayers was a starter, he was good but not great, showing smart instincts against the run and was an average pass defender with good but overused pass-rushing skills (from the edge, he had three sacks, four hits and 22 hurries, with a sack and a hurry coming from inside rushing).

The issue for Ayers in Tennessee and New England is that he’s not a 3-4 outside linebacker, and was asked to play that position for both teams, which is the reason he didn’t see the field in Tennessee in the first place and had to be traded.

The Patriots did a good job improving their depth immediately upon hearing news of Jones' injury, but the best fit for Ayers is as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 system, which the Vikings happen to run. In fact, last year as the strongside linebacker (with responsibilities similar to Chad Greenway’s now) he was one of the top outside linebackers in the NFL, certainly in the top five.

As a pass-rusher from the second level instead of the edge, he’s much more effective—though again while it’s a skill he’s good at, it never seems to match the amount of credit coaches give him. He’s fairly versatile in terms of which moves or countermoves he can employ. He has solid acceleration and good flexibility, but has issues with closing speed as well as strength.

Against the run, Ayers is instinctive and agile, and he does a good job getting around blockers to get to the ballcarrier. His take-on skills after being locked on aren’t particularly admirable, but they are OK as it is, and he avoids it often enough to make big plays. He’s excellent at flowing to the ball, creating outside contain and sifting through the trash.

His experience in New England should help him out in adapting to Mike Zimmer’s scheme, as both employ underneath pattern match concepts that are relatively difficult to pick up, but it should be noted that for all of Ayers’ excellence against the run his play in coverage is inconsistent (which isn’t to say bad, but not always good).

He was hidden a bit at Tennessee, but not in a way that screams “two-down” linebacker. He’s athletically more than capable against the pass, and can break to the ball quickly and easily. At times, complicated route concepts can pull him too far out of his zone and he has issues in backpedal, but for the most part plays the quarterback well and can get to the ball. His coverage numbers are suspect, so that’s reason for concern, but on balance, his phenomenal play against the run more than makes up for his issues against the pass—all of which, except for the issues in backpedal, seem eminently coachable.

Given Ayers’ issues fitting in the 3-4 in Tennessee and his time on the bench in New England’s hybrid, the 25-year-old may not see a market develop for him quickly in a league obsessed with recency. But it wasn’t long ago that both Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report called him a top five outside linebacker.



4. Brandon Graham, Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles

Brandon Graham is better than Everson Griffen.

That’s the most effective way to talk about someone that has been inexplicably buried in the depth chart under inferior starters who make more money.

This last year, Brandon Graham only saw 524 snaps, but was Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. In 2013, he saw 200 fewer snaps, but still ended up in the top fifteen. In 2012, he saw starting time as the Eagles released Jason Babin, playing 435 snaps, and he was their second-ranked 4-3 defensive end. His only other year with significant snaps, 2010, he still earned a positive grade.

Put all that together, and he’s an impressive specimen. In his last 588 pass-rushing snaps (an average year for a starting 4-3 defensive end), he had 16 sacks, 19 hits and 85 hurries. It’s higher than any number of hurries that PFF has put together in a single year and certainly it ranks tops by some margin in their Pass Rusher Productivity metric.

Graham has a natural understanding of space, he’s fast, quick off the ball, has closing speed, plays with strength, works well with his hands as a pass-rusher—with a precise set of moves and countermoves—and great flexibility.

Though he needs to close better once he gets to the quarterback, he’s as solid a pass-rusher as there is, and not just in situational plays—he’s consistent by down and distance and gets past tackles quickly.

It may seem like he’s better for wide 9 schemes or as an outside linebacker, but Graham has shown the ability to play close against offensive tackles in a phone booth despite questions about his strength because of his phenomenal handwork and short-yardage burst.

In the run, he plays with a lot of awareness and recovers from his wide rush lanes with quickness and burst. He plays with good pursuit and angles, though the strength he shows as a pass-rusher seems to diminish, likely because his pass-rushing strength derives from leverage and a good speed-to-power conversion than it does natural strength.

That doesn’t mean he plays with subpar strength so much as it means it is his biggest flaw and area of improvement. He’s a spectacular player that will see his contract likely underplay how good he is on a consistent basis across multiple years and schemes.



3. Clint Boling, Guard, Cincinnati Bengals

Finally a season where Boling puts it all together, the 25-year-old from Georgia has realized his potential, both as a pass blocker and run blocker this last year. Resolving leverage issues from 2013, Boling became a consistent road grader who did a much better job of using his strength and has much-improved footwork and speed to get to the second level.

As a run blocker, Boling doesn’t just play with good leverage, but timing and speed in order to work through the complicated blocking rules he sometimes has to adhere to, playing without hesitation. He does a better job washing out players in zone blocking than he is as a drive blocker, but so long as he can maintain the angles he created in Cincinnati, he’ll be a fine run blocker who can pull well enough to make plays.

As a pass blocker, Boling has finally leveraged his fantastic balance with technique and punch, and his natural agility makes him well-suited for smaller three-techniques while he has enough strength to handle nose tackles one-on-one (though he tends to receive more help than Kevin Zeitler, the other guard).

He can be pushed back by a good bull rush, but for the most part holds his own against a variety of techniques and players. He only allowed two sacks all season, though he did let up a little more pressure than the top guards in the game with eight hits and ten hurries. The year prior, he didn’t allow a single sack or hit, so for the most part he’s been clean as a guard.

Unlike Iupati or Franklin, Boling can provide an immediate upgrade at guard without much loss anywhere, but Boling can likely do it cheaper and for better value. Boling hasn’t received much attention, and that may portend a contract that could end up to be half that of either Iupati or Franklin, without a significant drop-off in play (and honestly, there’s an argument he’s purely a better player too, not just as a value pickup).



2. Kareem Jackson, CB, Houston

An outside cornerback in 2012 and 2013, Kareem Jackson found a home in the slot in 2014 and he played lights out there. Though his coverage statistics aren’t the friendliest in the league, his ability and technique were solid throughout the year, replicating a solid 2012 instead of a worrisome 2013.

Despite his size (5’10.5”), Jackson actually plays with very good length and tends to have a bigger impact than most cornerbacks his size. He has the raw athletic talent to do anything asked of him in the slot or on the outside, but he pairs it with solid intuition and a good read of the receiver.

Fluid, quick, fast and strong, Jackson looks like he was built to play for the slot. As a slot corner often tasked with run responsibilities, Jackson has shown a willingness not just to make the tackle, but provide a big hit in the process.

Jackson rarely misses tackles and has more than once done a good job bringing down running backs with little to no group. He’s physical and instinctive enough against the run to enable the scheme’s push to the alley and he reads his blockers well. He sheds receiver stalk blocks very well to make the play and controls the perimeter.

In terms of playing the kind of mixed coverages that Zimmer will want in a defense, Jackson has shown an ability not just to intuit the slot routes really well, but jump underneath them in zone or stay tight in man. Those instincts, plus that athleticism, are hard to replace, and technical issues regarding his footwork can be resolved.

He’s more talented than three interceptions, and has shown a better proclivity to learning the playbook than Captain Munnerlyn has at this point and though he may not be in the conversation to be the top slot corner in the game, he holds the most potential out of the established nickel defenders, with serious signs of coachability and a long road ahead of him (he’s 26). Jackson doesn’t command name recognition, so his buildup of good play may not be enough for him to immediately land a contract on the free agency market. That’s where deals can be made, and ending up with a cheap Kareem Jackson could be the biggest signing in free agency for the Vikings, even if it doesn’t make the biggest splash.



1. Devin McCourty, Safety, New England Patriots

The only one this high on the list that can be in the debate for best at his position, Devin McCourty hasn’t been recognized by enough people as an elite safety. Largely a safety that covers the deep zone, he would be a perfect complement to Harrison Smiths’ new-found versatility as a strong safety in the box and as a pass-rusher.

McCourty plays with some of the best range in the game, and though he’s not an athletic phenom like Eric Weddle or Earl Thomas, he can cover a wide range of space with his speed. He supplements that speed with extremely intelligent play and fantastic instincts.

Over the past three years, Devin McCourty has scored as Pro Football Focus’ second-best safety (behind Eric Weddle) and in that time ranks fourth in receptions given up per snap in coverage, third in coverage snaps per target and ninth in yards given up per snap in coverage. He also happens to be Matt Miller’s second-best safety based on film and technique.

Obviously McCourty is the top of this list not because of raw data or numbers, but because he’s an incredible player who makes fantastic plays.

McCourty is an incredibly cerebral player that has a good understanding not just of recognizing individual routes but route packages and concepts. It’s difficult to catch McCourty in conflict and even harder to catch him entirely out of position. He has experience playing as a man corner in a man-heavy scheme, a zone corner in a zone-heavy scheme and a deep zone defender as a safety, and in mixed pattern-match coverages. Despite some issues in his second year as a corner, he has mostly mastered it every year.

Making the All-Pro team as both a cornerback and safety is impressive, but what’s more is that he’s deserved it.

The criticisms for McCourty are natural and speak to limited in-the-box versatility and the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man: strength and size. The Patriots limited their liability by only playing McCourty in the box on sixteen percent of snaps, but McCourty has been a sure tackler when he does meet the ballcarrier, with very few missed tackles to his name over the past three years, both overall and solely against the run.

He’s not a terrible pass-rusher, but that’s not why you would sign him. He will enable any scheme dependent on a deep safety who cleans up the passing game and allows the other safety to freelance. His time in New England has allowed him to adapt to shifting coverages below him, complementing teammates that move their zones to respond to the play.

The Cover-1 the Steelers used to play is a perfect example of this, where Troy Polamalu’s freelancing was covered by Ryan Clark, who had the intuition and knowledge of the Steelers’ constantly shifting scheme to hold up the back end while Polamalu flew around the field.

McCourty is the same way, but a better deep coverage defender. Signing McCourty to free up Harrison Smith is too tantalizing to say no. McCourty is about to enter his prime (he’s 27) and despite the likelihood he’ll get top dollar, he’s well worth it.

Head over to Vikings Journal to read about the latest on Adrian Peterson and the Lone Star State with a franchise interested in him, a retrospective on the quarterback decision the Vikings made or rehash the best commercials from Super Bowl XLIX.

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.