With free agency a month away and the draft still two-and-a-half months ahead of them, the Vikings, and particularly general manager Rick Spielman have a lot of work to do.
As it currently stands, the Vikings expect to have 10 draft picks to work with draft weekend. Spielman has a history of trading draft picks, moving up to grab a player he covets and dropping back if he believes the team could benefit from the additional draft pick(s) a trade downward can bring.
Only one thing is certain – the Vikings are going to get a blue-chip first-round pick whether they stay at No. 3 or not in April's draft. The question that remains is this: What sort of a roster will the Vikings have when they start making their franchise-changing roster decisions on draft weekend?
With the return of NFL normalcy thanks to the end of the lockout, free agency will start six weeks before the draft. As a result, teams will be able to buy players – breaking the bank for some younger stars and spending less for the Tier-2 or Over-30 types. There will be plenty of movement of players, which will impact all 32 teams in the NFL.
If one was to prioritize the needs that the Vikings have, an argument can made for three positions that are in dire need of upgrading and three more that aren't far behind. They are as follows:
Cornerback – Antoine Winfield will be 35 next season, Cedric Griffin has two damaged knees that have never fully recovered from a pair of torn ACLs and the future of Chris Cook is very much up in the air.
Left Tackle – This has been a position that historically the Vikings have drafted to fill. Until last year, the previous nine years had been the personal domain of Bryant McKinnie. For seven years prior to that, Todd Steussie was the man. For seven years prior to that, Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman held down that post. Charlie Johnson was a short-term stop-gap. The Vikings ideally would like to see Matt Kalil available when they pick at No. 3 and make a pick that they will be convinced will man the position at a high level for years to come.
Wide Receiver – The Vikings haven't had a big-play receiving threat with size and speed since Randy Moss was traded to Oakland. It has become a sore spot that has provided more disappointment than big plays.
Safety – The Vikings haven't had a playmaker here since Darren Sharper left and have tried to get the job done both through the draft and free agency. From Madieu Williams to Tyrell Johnson to Husain Abdullah to Mistral Raymond, the Vikings have tried to get a big-play producer out of the safety position with limited results.
Linebacker – Chad Greenway is under contract for the foreseeable future, but neither E.J. nor Erin Henderson is currently under contract and there is the potential that neither may be back next season.
Guard – Steve Hutchinson might be subject to being cut given his high cap number, according the speculation factories. On the other side, Anthony Herrera has been workmanlike, but injuries have limited him each of the last two seasons.
All six of these positions need attention, but the simple reality is they can't all be adequately addressed in free agency. Some of them will have to be improved via free agency. While the ranking of the needs is one thing, the ranking of the needs to be addressed in free agency is markedly different. Here is how we see the Vikings attacking this part of the offseason rebuilding program.
Wide Receiver – This is the easiest position to fill in free agency because so many talented players have either played themselves out of a spot or been replaced by younger, less expensive talent. With Pro Bowl players like Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Dwayne Bowe available and aging savvy stars like Reggie Wayne and Plaxico Burress out there as well, there will be no shortage of available talent. The question is only which one will the Vikings view as the best fit for their roster in both talent and cost?
Safety – In the pass-happy NFL, including the three other QBs that occupy the NFC North, having players that can make the big play to change a game around is critical in the emerging era of the NFL. If you don't have good safety play, you don't win – pure and simple. Like wide receivers, it often takes safeties a couple of years to hone their instincts, so, in the short term, the Vikings may be better off to go into free agency looking for a four- or five-year veteran with some tread left on the tire than continuing the revolving door of marginal talent that has followed in the wake of Sharper and his pick-happy ways.
Linebacker – Whether the Henderson Brothers come back to entertain the home fans or not, something needs to be done here. With the influx of 3-4 teams in the NFL, there are a lot more roster spots devoted to linebackers. While linebacker is always one of the most picked-over positions on draft weekend, having a veteran presence that can make plays and use experience and savvy to make up for a lost half-step in coverage can make a big impact right away.
Cornerback – No position shows when a player is on the physical decline more than cornerback. Teams are willing to get rid of aging corners left, right and sideways. The really good ones never make it to free agency. While the Vikings are almost sure to add a corner during the free-agent period, this one may be better served for the long term by using a second-round pick or, if they trade down in the first round, seriously consider using a first-rounder on a corner.
Guard – The good thing about the draft is that there are college offensive tackles that simply don't project to be NFL-caliber tackles – adding to the talent pool of available guard prospects. There may be as many guard prospects in the draft (when tackles who will transition are factored in) as any position in the league. Finding the right one to fit a team's specific scheme is critical, but good ones can be had in the early part of Day 3 of the draft, so spending a lot of money here isn't something that makes a lot of sense.
Offensive Tackle – OTs are like quarterbacks. A team can survive by buying them off the free agent market, but the good teams draft a left tackle and keep him there for a decade. Charlie Johnson was brought in to be a transitional player and likely will be. The Vikings could get Kalil in the first round or try to swing a trade to get back into the end of the first round to grab one they view as being the cornerstone of the future and primary protector of Christian Ponder moving forward.
The game plan for the offseason is mapping out which positions of need can best be filled in free agency and which will need to be addressed over draft weekend. It would seem that the needs and how they will be filled differ greatly, but the Vikings need some stark changes to move away from the dank basement dwellers of the NFC North that they have become. It's time to flip the script, take chances and prioritize, which could mean using the draft to get help at offensive tackle and cornerback and free agency to take care of the rest – for better or worse.
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.
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