As General Manager Rick Spielman projected, the Vikings have kept a low profile in the early stages of NFL free agency. But the team has done some efficient, cap-friendly scratching of its To-Do List.
In our Free Agency Tracker, we list 11 things the Vikings needed to tend to in free agency. They’ve addressed four of them, including the top priority, which was signing a veteran backup quarterback (Shaun Hill). They also locked down an interior nickel pass rusher (re-signing Tom Johnson), a versatile backup interior offensive lineman (re-signing Joe Berger) and, don’t forget, long snapper (re-signing Cullen Loeffler). And, if you want to get technical, you can add last summer’s contract extensions for tight end Kyle Rudolph and right guard Brandon Fusco to the mix because those quiet signatures kept two key starters out of this year’s free agency pool. (If you don’t believe in cap management like this, see: Orleans, New).
So what’s next? The team still has to at least snoop around at several positions in free agency. But the new priority No. 1 is …
Left guard: Spielman collected seven first-round draft picks from 2012 to 2014. That’s SEVEN No. 1s in THREE years. The first wave of lucrative extensions arrives next year with Harrison Smith and possibly Matt Kalil, assuming the big fella can get his health and game straightened out in 2015. Therefore, we should have a level of understanding as to why the Vikings didn’t dive wallet first into the big-money spending spree at guard on Day 1. The top three guards flew off the board in a mushroom cloud of guaranteed money and future cap dollars when Mike Iupati went to Arizona, Orlando Franklin went to San Diego and Clint Boling re-signed with Cincinnati.
So what’s left?
Justin Blalock: Well, for starters, give the Vikings credit for nailing down Berger. While they don’t intend to start him at left guard, they at least have him available to start in a worst-case scenario, which isn’t terrible and prevents a roll-the-dice-and-pray-for-Teddy’s-life gamble on David Yankey being able to perform at this level this soon. Now, the focus has to be on how they can upgrade from a worst-case scenario before they get to the draft. That’s important because having to reach for a position in the draft, like the Vikings had to do on Christian Ponder during the NFL lockout in 2011, rarely turns out well.
Blalock is a 31-year-old temporary fix, which is acceptable considering what’s left in free agency and the fact the Vikings don’t want to tie up large sums of future cap space. It also wouldn’t prevent them from taking Iowa’s Brandon Scherrf if he’s the best player on the board when the Vikings select 11th overall in the draft.
Blalock is durable, having started 125 games while missing only three since being a second-round draft pick in 2007. He also fits the Vikings’ preference to sign players who were released rather than unrestricted free agents. Signing players who were released doesn’t factor in when comp picks are determined the following year.
Other guard options: Dan Connolly, 32; Rob Sims, 31; Jeromy Clary, 31; Shelley Smith, 27.
What else is out there?
The Vikings also need to at least look at middle linebackers, receivers, strong safeties, cornerbacks and a left defensive end. Here are some options to keep an eye one:
MLB Brandon Spikes: He’s 27 and talented enough to be one of the players of high interest as the second wave of free agency begins. Might be too expensive. The Vikings could be waiting to see if other players get released or for their own UFA, Jasper Brinkley, to test the market and re-sign. Other MLBs: Rolando McClain, 26; Mason Foster, 26; Brinkley.
S Rahim Moore: He’s 25 and a strong player as far as most free agents go (remember, these are the best of the players who weren’t wanted by their own teams). He gets a bad rap for one bone-headed play, albeit a horribly-timed bone-headed play that cost the Broncos a playoff win in the closing seconds of a game against the Ravens a couple years back. Other safeties: Taylor Mays. He’s 27 and spent three years in Cincy with current Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
DE Adrian Clayborn: The Vikings reportedly expressed interest in him and they need a young player who can fill out the rotation at left end and possibly replace Brian Robison in a year. Scott Crichton might end up being that guy, but he didn’t show enough as a rookie to count on that.
CB Tramon Williams: Green Bay’s UFA is 32, but the Vikings need experienced depth at corner so they can buy time to develop younger corners while moving Captain Munnerlyn to the No. 3 nickel slot position. Other corners: Brandon Browner, Chris Culliver.
WR??: This is a hard one to even venture a guess. The Vikings will not overpay a receiver and put themselves in a bad spot financially heading into the draft. They already have an $11 million cap figure on Greg Jennings. Going for a Michael Crabtree or another young receiver looking for a big pay day could be more harmful than helpful. With no prototypical No. 1-type receiver available, affordable or dependable, it might be wiser to sit tight, wait for possible one-year bargains to unfold and take this need into the draft (and hope someone is getting through to Cordarrelle Patterson and making him understand that he’s no longer a child playing Pop Warner ball).