With more than 27 million in 2014 cap dollars spent in the last month, the Vikings have done plenty to stabilize their roster for the upcoming season and have the money to add more.
One problem: The free-agent market is beginning to dwindle. Even with two additions to the top-20 rankings on Scout.com – Darrelle Revis and DeMarcus Ware – since the start of free agency last Tuesday, all of the top 22 have either signed a new contract or received the franchise or transition tag. Even among the top 50, there are only seven players left unsigned and three of those are at positions the Vikings don't need to spend big on right now: running back and offensive tackle.
So, with about $14 million available (but not required) to spend, where should the Vikings go with their remaining dollars? They still need a linebacker or two and depth at several positions. Much of that can be filled in the draft, but expect a couple of smaller signings to help fill out the roster before the May 8-10 draft.
"As we continue, there will be come contracts that will be shorter term, one-year deals," general manager Rick Spielman said. "Then we're going to have our guys come in, whether it's our own guys or other guys that are currently still out on the market on one-year deals to come in and show us what they have, let our coaches get a hold of them to see what they can do with them and give them a chance to come in and compete as well."
They will also need to keep some money in reserve, probably about $5 million, to sign their draft picks. And they usually want a few million going into the season to account for injury replacements.
But, despite the money getting tighter with each level of spending, there is another area the Vikings need to consider: Extending the contracts of their own key players who will be free agents soon enough.
The first-round draft picks since 2011 have fifth-year options on their contracts, allowing the team to have control for another season. In the case of Matt Kalil, the Vikings would essentially have to view him worthy of the average of the top 10 salaries at his position, but he is already covered through the 2015 season. And the way it's looking, they likely won't care to exercise that fifth-year option on Christian Ponder.
There are a few players the Vikings will have to consider for extensions outside of their first-round picks since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2011, and one position should be the focus of the front office in the coming months: tight end.
After attempting to restructure John Carlson's contract for a second straight year and this time him refusing, the Vikings released him. From a strictly business standpoint, it's hard to blame the Vikings for that decision. Although he showed a bit of what he could do in 2013, it was more of the same for Carlson, with injuries derailing momentum. This time, his long-term health had to be a consideration, too, with multiple concussions now a factor.
Carlson's release leaves three tights on the roster – Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford. Two of them – Rudolph and Ford – have expiring contracts after the 2014 season, and those are two main pass catchers at the position.
Rudolph's is the biggest contract to consider over the next year. The 2011 second-round pick is scheduled to be a free agent next March unless the Vikings can come to terms with him, and it won't be a cheap signing.
While Rudolph has been compared to Rob Gronkowski since before Rudolph was even drafted, he hasn't reached that status yet and that should take him out of the $9 million-per-year range. But it's fair to consider him in the next tier of tight ends. Included in that $7 million-per-year range are Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Jared Cook, Jermichael Finely and Zach Miller.
Those are names that Rudolph can stack up against and likely will be setting his market.
Ford's contract is also done after 2014, but he won't come near those numbers. However, he has shown to be intriguing prospect, even if a bit one-dimensional (mostly just as a pass catcher at this point), in practices and limited game action. If the money with the cap allows, signing him to an extension early in the season would be a proactive move.
The Vikings will surely add a tight end in the draft or free agency to help fill out the position and protect themselves for the future, but starting discussions on extensions soon would be the wise move.
After tight end, there aren't a lot of starters to consider with contracts that expire after the 2014 season. Brandon Fusco could be next in line, and safety Jamarca Sanford also is entering the final year of his contract.
Sanford's deal recently was restructured, putting him on a prove-it campaign to new head coach Mike Zimmer before an extension is considered.
The Vikings have built up their roster in free agency and appear to be in great shape for the future, but if they still have cap room going into the season, tight end should be the starting point of the extensions.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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