With 2016 free agency set to begin Wednesday afternoon, the Vikings on Tuesday said goodbye to their priciest addition of the 2015 offseason.
They released speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, who disappointed in his one year in Minnesota because of many missed connections with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Wallace, who was acquired in a trade last March, had career lows with 39 catches, 473 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings raved about his leadership, as he was often the last player off the practice field following his marathon sessions with the JUGS machine. But they decided he wasn’t worth his $11.5 million salary for 2016.
Wallace’s release gave the Vikings more than enough salary cap space to sign a few significant free agents, should they choose to do so. But beyond their flirtation with the offensive lineman who widely was considered as the best available on the open market, they are again laying low as the start of the new league year looms.
On Monday, when the league’s two-day negotiation period opened, the Vikings pursued former Baltimore Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele. But by first thing Tuesday morning, Osemele had agreed to a five-year, $60 million megadeal with the Oakland Raiders.
More contract agreements soon came fast and furious throughout the NFL.
Denver defensive end Malik Jackson agreed to join the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul re-signed with the New York Giants. Former Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams was the latest free-agent splurge down in Miami. And Dolphins running back Lamar Miller reportedly was closing in on a new deal with the Houston Texans.
The Vikings made one minor re-signing Tuesday, bringing back reserve linebacker and special-teamer Audie Cole on a one-year deal. That now makes six of their free agents re-signed or tendered since Saturday. But they have stayed out of the fray while other teams have agreed to toss big money at the big names.
The Vikings have, however, expressed interest in a few free agents familiar to coach Mike Zimmer from his days as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
Even after re-signing safety Andrew Sendejo to a four-year, $16 million deal, they have made overtures to George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, the starting safeties for the Bengals in 2015, as they look for the “right” safety to pair with Harrison Smith.
Zimmer was in his fifth year in Cincinnati when the Bengals selected Iloka in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft. Iloka is one of the league’s biggest defensive backs at 6-4 and 225 pounds, and the 25-year-old played an in-the-box safety role similar to how Zimmer in his two years with the Vikings has utilized Smith.
Iloka fits the profile of the type of player for whom General Manager Rick Spielman is willing to spend in free agency — still young and hopefully still ascending.
Nelson, meanwhile, is 32, but he tied for the league lead in interceptions last season while often lining up as a deep safety for the Bengals. He likely would come cheaper than Iloka, and perhaps the success that 37-year-old former Bengals cornerback Terence Newman had in 2015 would make a deal here mutually appealing.
The Vikings also have been linked in reports to Bengals free-agent linebacker Vincent Rey and cornerback Adam Jones, and Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur could make sense as a backup to the similarly sized Anthony Barr.
Zimmer’s fondness for the right former players is not being overstated. Generally speaking, he has said that his familiarity with their skill sets and how they fit in his scheme, in addition to his intimate knowledge of their work ethic and passion for the game, makes him more comfortable with signing them opposed to the unknown.
The Vikings will, of course, consider free agents who have not played in Cincinnati.
The price for Osemele escalated in a hurry, but the Vikings likely will look at more affordable options along the offensive line in the hopes of improving their 29th-ranked offense.
The best available free-agent guards are expected to be San Francisco’s Alex Boone, Houston’s Brandon Brooks, Denver’s Evan Mathis and Kansas City’s Jeff Allen.
Seattle’s Russell Okung, Oakland’s Donald Penn and Pittsburgh’s Kelvin Beachum are among the tackles who could reach free agency. But the Vikings have given no indications that they plan to move on from left tackle Matt Kalil, whose $11.1 million salary becomes guaranteed once the league year begins at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
After parting ways with Wallace, they have more than $30 million in cap space.