In-house contracts big part of free agency

The Vikings are a little more than two months away from the start of free agency, but before they consider big contracts in March they have to look at what’s ahead over the next year with their current players.

As the Minnesota Vikings’ decision-makers start the full grind of their offseason process of making the tough calls on who stays or who goes, there is a consideration that has to be taken in that is going to start costing them as soon as this year, but not later than next year.

As an organization, the Vikings have a history of locking down players they believe have a strong future with the team before they get to the contentious portion of free agency, where the use of the franchise tag has a history of creating hard feelings.

It’s a history that can’t be ignored. When the organization knows it has someone they’re convinced can be a long-term contributor, they don’t wait until they get close to free agency. They act either before the end of a season or at or before the start of training camp. The list of players they have used this tactic with is too long to ignore.

It includes Adrian Peterson, Brian Robison, Chad Greenway, John Sullivan, Phil Loadholt, Everson Griffen, Kyle Rudolph and Brandon Fusco.

When the front office sees a bright future in a player, he is rewarded with the second contract before his first contract expires. For the Vikings, it’s not currently an issue. The only other player from the free agent class of 2011 is Christian Ponder and it would appear the dye has been cast on that relationship already.

But, moving forward, the Vikings are going to face a slew of potentially expensive choices because of the practice of jumping back into the first round to make draft picks.

The Class of 2012 is going to come with a price tag when the receipt comes due for their potential free agency. Harrison Smith is the most obvious re-signing candidate, because few if any Vikings seem to be a better glove fit in the Mike Zimmer defense than Smith. The jury is out on Matt Kalil. He has one year to earn a second contract and, if he does earn it, it won’t come cheap.

But it doesn’t stop there. Josh Robinson is entering the final season of his contract. While he got abused by big receivers, he showed a lot of improvement. Jarius Wright has carved a niche for himself in the offense. Robert Blanton won a starting job. Blair Walsh booms kickoffs and, while his field goal percentage was brutal in 2014, there were extenuating circumstances involved in a handful of the misses. Even Audie Cole would garner interest on the free agent market.

Not to sound like Chicken Little, but in the next two years, the Vikings will have to weigh long-term decisions on five more first-round draft picks looking for that second contract that gives them long-term financial security.

As things currently stand heading into free agency, the only post-CBA rookie of 2011 that is on the team but not under contract is Ponder and that destiny has been determined for some time.

A year from now? That could be a very different story. As fans open their imaginations to what outside free agents could help make an impact in getting the 2015 Vikings into legitimate playoff contention, the Winter Parkers are trying to crunch the numbers as what it will take to the keep key members of the current band together when we’re bidding farewell to 2015, not ushering it in.

In the NFL, a life cycle lasts one year. The questions that are in front of the Vikings at the start of 2015 are going to be answered over the next 12 months – one player at a time. That starts with Smith and works its way down.

What the Vikings do in free agency may well hinge on how much faith – and money – the team plans to earmark for the Class of 2012. That balloon payment is coming.

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