Vikings set up nicely for free agency

The Vikings have been moving away from big free-agent signings, but with the two key components of their 2011 draft class already re-signed, they can focus on outside free agents.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the focus of the 32 head coaches and their staffs is either on making a playoff run, finishing strong or trying to save themselves from being Black Monday casualties Dec 29.

But behind the closed doors of team facilities, those who make the call on draft decisions and free agency are busy at work. Almost two months before the draft will be conducted, free agency will take center stage and, as a result of the 2011 lockout, there is going to be a buzz of activity that hasn’t been seen in the NFL before.

Fortunately for the Vikings, they won’t be impacted nearly as much as many of the other teams in the league.

When the NFL and the players association struck a deal to prevent games from being missed and reached a new collective bargaining agreement, the people who conceded the most were those who didn’t have a voice – college players entering the league.

One of the contentious issues that both the league and the players association eventually agreed on was that the top end of the rookie pay scale was too high, taking salary-cap money away from established veterans. If a team had a top five blue-chip pick, in most instances, those players became among the highest paid players on the roster despite never playing a down in the NFL.
It wasn’t unusual to see five- or six-year contracts that were signed with the hope that a player would pan out. Players like Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford got huge long-term deals that made them among the best-paid quarterbacks in the league – with no guarantee that they would be the real deal in the NFL. That all changed in 2011

Not only was the rookie salary cap slashed, but part of the CBA stated that all contracts for rookies would be four-year deals with first-round picks having a fifth-year option. Why is that important? In three weeks, all of the Class of 2011 that hasn’t been re-signed will be scheduled for free agency.

For teams that had a strong draft class in 2011, it’s going to pose some problems. Because they didn’t get the huge-money contracts rookies from previous season received, the Class of 2011 is going to be looking for a payday when free agency begins. With new television contracts kicking in, there is going to be money to spend for those teams looking to add component pieces that they believe are the missing ingredients to a championship run. While teams are built predominantly through the draft, free agency is often the tipping point for a team that is close to making a title run.

For the Vikings, it may be the best of both worlds. Only three players from their 2011 draft class remain with the team. Two of them – tight end Kyle Rudolph and guard Brandon Fusco – have already been re-signed. The other – QB Christian Ponder – isn’t viewed as a factor and will likely be allowed to test free agency and leave if he gets a better offer (or perhaps any offer) to go elsewhere.

The same can’t be said around the league. Some teams have made a concerted effort to lock down their own free agents before the market opens and prices spike upward. It’s going to create a flurry of activity as teams have to make the hard decisions on who to keep and who to allow to enter free agency.

There is likely going to be some animosity associated with it because the franchise tag may have to be used and, for those players who didn’t get the eye-popping rookie contracts that became a sticking point with both owners and veteran NFL players who felt cheated, the franchise tag will likely be viewed as a slap in the face. Their chance to finally get the huge money that free agency brings will be delayed by a year, which historically has driven a wedge between elite players and franchises.

Fortunately for the Vikings, it won’t be an issue. They’ve already signed the two players from the Class of 2011 they envision moving forward with. Their concentration can be on sniping players from other organizations that haven’t locked them into long-term second contracts. It’s going to get a little contentious with some teams, but the Vikings may well be aligning themselves to cherry-pick players they believe can help them win in 2015 and beyond.

Players aren’t thinking about much other than their next opponent right now, but as season end for 20 teams in three weeks and more drop out every subsequent week, the focus will turn to free agency and the draft. As the Class of 2011 prepares to hit the open market, it could make this year’s free agency one of the more interesting collection of players to ever reach the NFL marketplace and it could well be a buyer’s market.

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