The Vikings have been putting contingency plans in place but have to prioritize what they will do once the gate opens and everyone in the league takes off as if shot from a cannon. Veteran free agents will be re-signed. Those with fat contracts could be released. Undrafted prospects will be brought in for a crash course and long odds of making a roster. Rookies will be asked to get up to speed immediately.
As we see it, if the Vikings have scripted their first five post-lockout plays, here's what they should be:
Play No. 1: Make Sure What Veteran Free Agents You Want to Keep – The Vikings have several key players: Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Pat Williams, Ben Leber, Ryan Longwell and Fred Evans. All but Evans are starters and Evans has been a key reserve in the middle of the defensive line. Before the Vikings can start shopping for outside help, they need to find out immediately who they can re-sign. If they want Leber and Longwell, they can get them back. Rice will be hard to sign, but not impossible. Edwards will likely be out the door as other teams will make absurdly high offers that the Vikings won't even make a legitimate attempt to match. Williams wants to play and Leslie Frazier has hinted he would like to have him back. Whether the organization believes that or not, we will just have to wait and see.
Play No. 2: Do What Is Needed to Keep Rice – His injury history – missing time with various injuries in three of his four seasons – is eclipsed by his breakout 2009 season in which he became one of the dominant receivers in the league. He has yet to prove himself as the kind of player that can draw a $50 million contract, but it was clear what was missing from the Vikings offense in 2010 – a deep receiver who can fight for a ball and catches almost everything thrown his way. If money is a concern, there aren't many Vikings fans that would shed tears if Bernard Berrian was cut loose and the money saved for his $5 million salary could be applied to Rice's new deal. If Rice gets away, the Vikings may have to be aggressive to get a playmaking wide receiver. But, given the price that would cost, they would be better served to make a deal with the guy (Rice) they know and have worked with for four years.
Play No. 3: Find a Veteran QB – Christian Ponder and Joe Webb are the future, but a veteran could be the short-term present. It will be interesting to see what level of veteran the Vikings go after – the high-profile ones will all want to start – and who the organization believes can be a Brad Johnson-type stopgap.
Play No. 4: Address the Defensive Line – Whether the Vikings bring Edwards, Pat Williams and/or Evans back, there are still a lot of questions that need addressing. Both Pat and Kevin Williams face a four-game suspension to start the 2011 season, which will make the Vikings two players shorthanded and will force the team to keep more defensive linemen than expected. Brian Robison will presumably move into Edwards' spot, but depth is needed. Signing a versatile veteran D-lineman (or two) may be necessary.
Play No. 5: Get Ready to Spend – The Vikings will have a lot of needs that will require attention. The more obvious questions were dealt with in our first four plays. But depth on both lines, linebacker and the secondary are other positions of concern. The Vikings may have to overspend to get backups to compete for starting jobs, but, once the other 31 teams start making signings, they're going to come fast and furious and the Vikings will have to be aggressive.
For Frazier, Rick Spielman and the other talent evaluators in the organization, they've been waiting for months to get 2011 started. We're more than halfway through the calendar year and it hasn't happened yet. When the doors do open and the free-agent melee begins, the Vikings will have to be prepared to target players with big contract offers to fill the holes they need to address. They've been like horses in the starting gate waiting an eternity for the bell to sound and the gates to open. When they do, the Vikings will be in a short race that could determine who succeeds and who fails in 2011.
The Bears won the 2010 division title in large part to what they did the first day of free agency – signing Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor, adding a dominant defender and weakening the defending division champion Vikings by taking away an unheralded but critical piece of their offense.
When the free-agent feeding frenzy begins, you can bet the Vikings will be deeply involved. All they are waiting for now is the word "go" to get off and running.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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.