Draft half full or free agency half empty?
When it comes to the Minnesota Vikings’ needs and the strengths during this season of roster building, it depends on how observers look at the situation.
The Vikings’ top area of need, based on listening to Mike Zimmer’s various analyses of the 2015 season in the last month, is offensive line. Other areas need strengthening, too, like receiver, and there are questions on the defensive side of the ball, depending on how the Vikings approach their own free agents. Chad Greenway wants to return and the organization could use his leadership for another season as the team’s younger linebackers and defenders develop and mature.
One area the Vikings don’t necessarily need an upgrade is defensive line, the top position of strength in the draft and one of the strengths of free agency, too.
The Vikings pick No. 23 in the first round of April’s draft. Of the 22 top-ranked players on the soon-to-be-released initial Scout.com draft rankings, eight of them are defensive linemen. From second-ranked Joey Bosa to 21st-ranked Kevin Dodd and every defensive lineman in between – DeForest Buckner, A'Shawn Robinson, Robert Nkemdiche, Shaquille Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah and Andrew Billings – the top of the draft’s first round is loaded with defensive linemen.
Look at the free-agent rankings, too, and there are plenty of proven players on the defensive line – Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Malik Jackson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Ian Williams, Greg Hardy, Nick Fairley, Jaye Howard, et al.
So what does the confluence of the draft and free-agent talent on the defensive line mean for the Vikings? That depends on how both areas of roster-building develop for the rest of the NFL teams. If there is a run of defensive linemen early in the draft, it would only push players at positions of need further down for the Vikings.
Is it possible a highly ranked offensive tackle like Ronnie Stanley “falls” to Minnesota because other teams are busy scooping up the defensive talent that is prevalent earlier? What about a wide receiver like Laquon Treadwell taking a tumble from the No. 11 ranking to the 23rd selection?
It could work against the Vikings, too, if teams decide that there is plenty of defensive line talent to wait on them and select at Minnesota’s positions of need before general manager Rick Spielman is able to execute his first draft pick.
There are plenty of possibilities for the Vikings, but some of their moves are dependent on the market. They aren’t likely to go crazy in free agency, as Spielman and Zimmer have both repeatedly stated their desire to build mostly through the draft, as they’ve done over the last two offseasons. Sure, there have been targeted acquisitions in free agency – like ascending nose tackle Linval Joseph and nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in Zimmer’s first season of roster rebuild or Terence Newman in 2015. Every year they will undoubtedly dabble in free agency, but big splashes that offer big bucks to aging players isn’t their M.O.
Fortunately, there are a couple of areas in free agency that are deep and match with possible positions of need. Safety, for one, is loaded with depth. There are at least a dozen of them that would be considered upgrades, from a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream like Eric Berry to more realistic possibilities, including George Iloka, who has experience in Zimmer’s system from his days in Cincinnati and fits the Vikings’ preferred status a young player entering his first veteran payday.
Wide receiver isn’t quite as deep in free agency, with a couple of proven guys like Alshon Jeffery and Travis Benjamin (admittedly Jeffery with proven production and Benjamin still not likely tapping into his full potential while coming off injury). But taking a stab at a younger and restricted free agent like Kamar Aiken, who was on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season with Baltimore last year in his first real opportunity, would be intriguing if too much wasn’t required in return.
There are also a half dozen starting possibilities at offensive tackle and the same outlook at guard, although some of the improvement with the offensive line will be based on a coaching change that brings a philosophical change with Tony Sparano.
No doubt some of the moves will be dependent the Vikings’ own moves before free agency opens. If they re-sign Andrew Sendejo, it’s possible they don’t search for another safety in free agency. To look for an upgrade at offensive tackle they would likely have to be willing to simply cut ties with a likable-but-too-often-injured Phil Loadholt. And to really make any significant moves in free agency would require the release of receiver Mike Wallace and his $11.5 million cap hit. Some of those moves are likely, like Wallace. Others are more precarious, like Loadholt.
The Vikings currently have about $23 million in estimated cap space but could elevate it close to $20 million higher with some surgical cuts. They also have to plan for what many consider a bright future, but one that would be expensive if the success continues trending upward, by allowing for future money to lock up promising young players that will be getting out of their rookie contracts in the coming years.
It’s all part of the offseason puzzle they are capably equipped to piece together for a strong run at the championship in 2016 and beyond, but making “all the right moves” – or at least several well-strategized ones – this offseason will be important to the future.
The draft, and to a lesser degree free agency, may not line up positions of strength with areas of Vikings needs, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, depending on the overall league flow as free-agent and draft runs on hot positions could leave more options for an opportunistic and wise-spending franchise.