For now, the NFL’s free-agent period is in the formative stages. On Monday, teams were allowed to get a feel for what some of the top free agents on the market are looking for in their next contract.
The Minnesota Vikings were busy.
While general manager Rick Spielman said the team might “dabble” in free agency, their actions say they might be a little more aggressive than originally thought, at least when it comes to investigating prices.
While they aren’t one of the leaders in salary-cap space, they could put themselves among the top 15 with some moves. One of those was already executed with the restructuring of Phil Loadholt’s contract, from a $7.75 million cap hit to $2 million. Another could be coming quickly with the release of receiver Mike Wallace, or the restructuring of his deal that calls for $11.5 million. The Vikings rightfully say they were pleased with Wallace’s locker-room influence, and rightfully say they were disappointed with his numbers. In the end, numbers often win.
But between Wallace and Loadholt, the Vikings could put an additional $15 million in their cap account and give themselves nearly $40 million in space. That is still nowhere near the best in the NFL, but it would put them near the top 10.
Apparently that has inspired some high-level aspirations for addressing the weak points on the team – a second safety, a third linebacker and, perhaps their biggest target (literally and financially), the offensive line.
While Baltimore Ravens free-agent offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele is the jewel of the offensive line class, he could be attainable without even knowing exactly where he would play along the offensive line. Osemele is known as one of the best guards in the NFL, but he also filled in admirably for the injured Eugene Monroe at the coveted and expensive left tackle position last year.
The possibilities are many if the Vikings would sign him. They could opt out of the final year of Matt Kalil’s contract and perhaps call it a wash with Kalil’s salary and Osemele’s asking price. They could keep Kalil and have Osemele play right tackle or guard. ESPN reports that the Vikings' interest in Osemele is as a guard, which could help keep his price down somewhat, but at minimum it would be a good insurance policy to have with Kalil in the final year of his contract. With John Sullivan returning at center, Joe Berger returning as a swingman on the interior, and Osemele, the offensive line would have a markedly different look for new position coach Tony Sparano.
But there is a formidable fly in the ointment. The Oakland Raiders, who have twice as much cap space as the Vikings, are also in pursuit of Osemele, according to numerous reports, including NFL Network, which believes his deal will land “well in excess of $10M per” (the Vikings are scheduled to pay Kalil about $11 million in 2016).
But it should be noted that the Vikings aren’t just inquiring about free agency’s anticipated most expensive offensive lineman. There were feelers put out about Cleveland’s right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, according to Cleveland.com. If that happened, Loadholt would likely move to a backup role where his body could be preserved for another season, and T.J. Clemmings could battle for a guard spot (depending on if Mike Harris re-signs with the Vikings).
And the Vikings were predictably gauging the market on the defensive side of the ball, as well. There were inquiries put into the agents for two of the best available safeties, Cincinnati’s George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, according to numerous reports, as Mike Zimmer looks for a safety next to Harrison Smith that could help him be “more of an impactful player,” as Zimmer put it at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The Vikings were, according to ESPN, also looking at Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who will turn 33 during the 2016 season. He’s had his share of run-ins, but Zimmer also addressed that type of player at the combine, saying he believes some players realize they are on their last chance and can hold it together to accommodate staying employed. But, like the other free-agent pursuits, there will be competition, and according to Pro Football Talk that includes the Cowboys, Dolphins and Browns, among others.
Of course, Zimmer knows Rey, Jones, Iloka and Nelson well, and Zimmer talked about the importance of familiarity in free agency. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner also has that with Schwartz, as they were together in Cleveland in 2013.
So far, familiarity has played a large role in the early stages of the negotiating period. That was expected. The level of aggressiveness – see: Osemele, Kelechi – is higher than anticipated.