The Vikings didn't make many splash signings in free agency last year, but it wasn't from a complete lack of trying.
General manager Rick Spielman didn't get everyone he took a shining to – notably receiver Pierre Garcon opted for the Washington Redskins after the Vikings reportedly made a run at him – but they added what they believed could be four starters with outside free agents Jerome Felton at fullback, Jerome Simpson at wide receiver, John Carlson at tight end and Geoff Schwartz at guard. For various reasons, injuries being factoring in with three of them, only Felton locked down a full-time job.
But free agency was never the primary focus for Spielman's roster-building efforts. His extensive studies of the most successful teams in the NFL have led him to believe that wise drafting and retaining a team's own free agents are the keys to championship-building.
"When I took the job last year my objective was that we're going to build this through the draft. And we're going to continue that same philosophy," Spielman said this week during a roundtable with reporters. "And it's even more exciting this year because of the success I think we've had over the past two drafts."
Indeed, the Vikings have had better success filling primary needs through the draft than through free agency of late. That approach has also led them from a tight salary-cap situation two years ago (much of that because of the money paid to QB Brett Favre) to a being in the top half of teams for salary-cap room heading into 2013 – anywhere from $12 million to $16 million depending which adjustments and incentives are figured at this time.
The Vikings signed 16 players over the last two years in free agency that were still with the team at the end of the year, but aggressiveness in free agency isn't always the answer. The biggest signing was Carlson, who inked a five-year, $25 million deal and ended the season with only eight catches. Schwartz and Simpson were also expected to have bigger roles when they were signed than they ended up with. All three of those free agents were affected by injury and Simpson had the added disadvantage of starting the season with a three-game suspension. Despite those setbacks, Simpson still finished with the third-most catches (26) on the team – behind Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins – including 11 in the final three games as his back and foot issues progressed.
Simpson, Schwartz and Felton, who was the best of the free-agent bunch, all signed one-year deals.
"A lot of the guys that we signed were the second-tier guys after the big waves went through. We signed them to kind of one-year deals," Spielman said. "I believe that when you did that, they come in and they're competing just like those rookie draft picks are coming in competing. You don't have a three- or four-year commitment to those guys."
Now that means Speilman, salary-cap specialist Rob Brzezinski and head coach Leslie Frazier will have to decide how many of those free agents to re-sign.
Over the next few weeks, the Vikings will have meetings between the scouting department and coaching staff discussing their own free agents, what's out there in unrestricted free agency and eventually figuring in the strengths of the draft to determine where to add talent at positions of need.
"We will look at everything because there are guys that are going to be coming up in (2014) as well. We've had a history of trying to lock guys in early before they get into the last year of their deal," Spielman said. "Not only are we going to deal with our own unrestricted free agents, but we have to look at who is coming up in ‘14 and is there a possibility of maybe signing an extension to one or two of those guys if we go down that route because as this roster evolves, and now these guys have been here three or four years that are playing pretty well for us, their contracts are going to be coming up.
"I truly believe the most success you have is if you're able to keep to your own because you know them the best. And if you can't keep your own or you make a mistake re-signing one of your own players, then that's your own fault because you're going to know them better than any other unrestricted free agent out there."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Notebook: Spielman talks free agency
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