The 2013 season officially ended last weekend and, after intense spotlight scrutiny, the NFL is going dormant in the minds of many sports fans as we speak. The Olympics, college basketball, the start of baseball training camp and the building to the playoffs of the NBA and NHL will take over the headlines.
But in a little more than a month, the 2014 season makes its first big splash with the opening of free agency. As we start counting down the days and home teams have the chance to hit players with franchise tags or get long-term deals done before free agency opens, the Vikings have a lot of questions coming into free agency, but, if you look around the division, they are far from alone.
Here is a breakdown of the teams in the division and their free agents heading into the buying frenzy of March, which, in NFL terms, opens like a hibernating bear and ends like a chupacabra.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS – Josh Freeman, QB; Toby Gerhart, RB; Jerome Simpson, WR; Joe Webb, WR; J'Marcus Webb, OL; Charlie Johnson, OL; Joe Berger, OL; Jared Allen, DE; Everson Griffen, DE; Fred Evans, DT; Kevin Williams, DT; Marvin Mitchell, LB; Desmond Bishop, LB; Chris Cook, CB.
The list looks worse than it really is. The Vikings have been preparing themselves for the likely loss of Allen and Williams. Aside from them, the only full-time starters hitting free agency are Johnson and Cook. Johnson is a solid left guard, but can probably be had for a hometown discount and entering camp as the presumptive starter. Cook hasn't intercepted a pass or been able to stay healthy. It may be time to cut ties and move on.
The most pressing question will be with Griffen and Gerhart. The Vikings will have to pay to keep Griffen, because he has the athleticism to thrive in a 3-4 defense or could develop as a starter for the Vikings in a 4-3. Gerhart is likely going to get too big an offer from another team to return as Adrian Peterson's understudy.
The Vikes will likely pick and choose which veteran backups/part-time players they make offers to – Simpson, both Webbs, Berger, Evans, Mitchell and Bishop. Much of that will be determined by what Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner consider good fits for their schemes. Losing Allen and Williams will hurt and create voids, but the money recouped can be spent to sign three or four free agents.
DETROIT LIONS – Shaun Hill, QB; Kevin Ogletree, WR; Micheal Spurlock, WR; Brandon Pettigrew, TE; Tony Scheffler, TE; Jason Fox, OL; Dylan Gandy, OL; Dominic Raiola, OL; Israel Idonije, DE; Willie Young, DE; Andre Fluellen, DT; Rocky McIntosh, LB; Rashean Mathis, CB; John Wendling, S; David Akers, K.
The Lions never fully recovered from losing Cliff Avril last season and likely aren't going to make that mistake again. The good news for Detroit is that they have limited big-time players that they could potentially lose. Almost all of their free agents other than Pettigrew and Fluellen have already played with other teams. The new coaching staff may do a significant house-cleaning, which could include making little to no effort to re-sign in-house free agents unless they are willing to meet the team's terms. With a new coaching staff, there will be plenty of changes. The Lions have the component parts on both sides of the ball to be a potential Super Bowl contender if they correctly fill in the weak spots. But it's going to take time for the new group to come together and Detroit has such a storied history of late-season collapses, you can never tell what you're going to get. But this looks like a free agent group that doesn't have a "must re-sign" player.
GREEN BAY PACKERS – Matt Flynn, QB; Kahlil Bell, RB; James Starks, RB; John Kuhn, FB; James Jones, WR; Jermichael Finley, TE; Andrew Quarless, TE; Marshall Newhouse, OL; Evan Dietrich-Smith, OL; Mike Neal, DE; C.J. Wilson, DE; Johnny Jolly, DT; Ryan Pickett, DT; B.J. Raji, DT; Rob Francois, LB; Sam Shields, CB.
The Packers have some hard decisions to make. They have a history of picking and choosing the players they invest in long-term and, given their string of recent success, fewer players are taking a bigger share of the salary cap space. On offense, the Packers don't need Starks or Kuhn, but both of them have to be seen as moderate priority re-signings. Jones may have to settle for a hometown discount price, but his rapport (and TDs) with Aaron Rodgers can't be overlooked. The biggest issue will be on defense. There is no way the Packers can afford to re-sign Raji, Pickett and Jolly, but they need to keep at least one and maybe two. Shields is probably the priority signing of all of them, because there will be competition – potentially from all three of Green Bay's division rivals.
CHICAGO BEARS – Josh McCown, QB; Jordan Palmer, QB; Devin Hester, WR/KR; Dante Rosario, TE; Jonathan Scott, OL; Eben Britton, OL; Roberto Garza, OL; Corey Wootton, DE; Landon Cohen, DT; Nate Collins, DT; Henry Melton, DT; James Anderson, LB; Blake Costanzo, LB; D.J. Williams, LB; Zack Bowman, CB; Kelvin Hayden, CB; Sherrick McManis, CB; Charles Tillman, CB; Craig Steltz, S; Major Wright, S.
The Bears came into 2013 knowing that they had a ton of expiring contracts and it's coming home to roost. Many of them may return, but only because the Bears may not have a ton of competition with a couple of exceptions. McCown could draw some interest after playing well in relief of Jay Cutler. Hester wouldn't seem right in another jersey. Their O-line could be hurt if both Britton and Garza go away. The big question is on defense. Tillman has a Hall of Fame resume, but is at the end of the line. Wright is a priority to re-sign because he does enough to get good offers, as will Wootten, Melton, Anderson, Williams and Bowman. The Bears may have a hard time competing if they get in bidding wars because they have too many holes to be viewed as a must-have Super Bowl pick.
There is no question that the Vikings have significant challenges heading into 2014. Spoiler alert! They will be picked last by just about every media source that makes predictions. But when you consider what the rest of the division is facing, they are far from alone in question marks between now and the opening of free agency.
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.
NFC North packed with free-agent decisions
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