Bests and busts of Minnesota Vikings free-agent history

The Vikings have made some impressive free-agent signings and suffered a heavy burden for others. Here are the top five and bottom in franchise history.

Free agency officially opens today as ink can be put to contract and the 32 NFL teams will be putting more than $1 billion in contract money on the table before the week is out.

Everyone is entering the annual spending spree with the hopes of finding the missing pieces to the puzzle that will provide them what they need to turn a bad team into a decent team, a decent team into a good team, a good team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a Super Bowl team.

Unfortunately, there are many more misses than hits when it comes to free agency. Often times, a player gets his biggest contract when he’s past the apex of his career arc. Teams are paying for past performance that isn’t indicative of future performance.

Some of the free agent signings have far exceeded what was hoped. Others have failed miserably and been akin to an organization conducting a bonfire fueled by $100 bills.

The Minnesota Vikings aren’t immune. These are our picks for the five best and five worst signings of the free agent era, keeping in mind that trades that brought players to the Vikings don’t count – Jared Allen and Warren Moon to the good and Herschel Walker and Mike Wallace to the bad.

THE BEST

1. Steve Hutchinson – Before Hutch, the term “poison pill” was unfamiliar in NFL parlance. Seattle was in a bind. They had a Hall of Fame left tackle in Walter Jones. The Seahawks knew what they had in Jone and made a point to lock him down. They tried to franchise Hutchinson, but gave him the transition tag, which, at the time, would require less of a financial commitment and would give the Seahawks the right to match any offer he received. The Vikings decided to put a proviso that Hutchinson either needed to be the highest paid offensive lineman on his team or the remainder of his contract would be guaranteed.

In Minnesota, it was a safe bet because his $49 million offer would make him the highest paid linemen for the next few years – even before the heavy lifting portion of the contract kicked in. In Seattle, it was basically guaranteeing the entire deal and making his an NBA or MLB contract. It would have killed the salary structure in Seattle and they had to pass – and they remained salty about it for years.

It was one thing to come to the Vikings. It was another to earn his $49 million. Hutch earned every dollar of it between 2006 and 2011. He was a Pro Bowler in each of the first four years, a First-Team All-Pro three times and a Second-Team All-Pro once, a two-time NFL Alumni Offensive Lineman of the Year, named to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s and selected as one of the 50 greatest Vikings of all-time. Others can make a case, but Hutch rules to the roost.

2. Antoine Winfield – As great as his achievements were, the story of his signing is even more impressive. In March 2004, Winfield was going to sign with the Jets. Negotiations were down to the minute details of his contract. He was at the Jets facility to sign the deal after the legal eagles gave it final perusal. Mike Tice was having none of it.

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Tice knew that Winfield’s wife didn’t want to live in New York with their young family. He didn’t try to persuade Antoine, a man of his word who had agreed to terms. He went after his wife, calling her to try to get Antoine to hold off on signing the deal. With Tice’s access to big-timers on the Kentucky horse racing circuit, he struck a deal to have a private plane brought up to New York and a limo to spirit the Winfields in an escape from New York. The Vikings subsequently signed Winfield to a six-year, $34.8 million deal with a $12.8 million signing bonus.

Four years into the deal, the Viking renegotiated a second contract for five years and $36 million. He was a three-time Pro Bowl player, a defensive leader and a credit to the organization. A case could be made to put him at No. 1 because of his longevity and sustained high level of play with the Vikings.

3. Brett Favre – Favre only had one good season with the Vikings and he cost the team $40 million over two seasons. But what he accomplished in 2009 was nothing short of incredible. With his spot in the Hall of Fame already assured, he posted the most efficient season of his long career and got the Vikings as close to the Super Bowl as they had been in a decade.

Some may contend he should be on the worst list because of the cost and the interception in the Superdome that derailed a magical season, but what gets him to this spot is that it so infuriated the Packers that it was worth every dime to see the great gnashing of teeth. Anything that weakens your top rival and causes them pain is worth its weight in gold.

4. Randall Cunningham – Another short-term signing, but one that made as big an impact as anyone on the list. Cunningham had spent 11 seasons in front of the brass-knuckle-packing fans of the Philadelphia Eagles. He went a long way to revolutionizing the quarterback position. After moving on from three record-setting seasons from Warren Moon, Denny Green had a replacement insurance policy in mind. Cunningham didn’t play in 1996 and considered himself retired – owning a stone flooring company in Nevada and making his transition from the NFL.

Green thought otherwise and was right.

When Brad Johnson went down early in the 1998 season, Cunningham was given control of the offense and what followed will be remembered in NFL history as one of the greatest offenses of all-time. He lasted only three years, but with the Vikings convinced he could carry the mail for them in 1999, they traded Brad Johnson to the Washington Redskins and, with the pick they received back from them, drafted Daunte Culpepper – adding to Cunningham’s value in this exercise.

5. Pat Williams – What makes Big Pat a must-have player on this list is that it didn’t make sense when the Vikings signed him in 2005 to a three-year, $13 million deal with incentives that could push it to $15 million. Despite spending eight seasons in Buffalo, he was largely an unknown and played in a 3-4 defense. The Vikings have never run a 3-4, so the signing seemed an illogical fit. But he and Kevin Williams helped forge the Williams Wall, one of the few nicknamed defenses of the last couple decades.

Williams so earned his contract that, two years into the deal, they re-worked his deal into another three-year contract for $22 million with $9.5 million guaranteed. He spent six seasons with the Vikings and was named to three Pro Bowls in that span. Despite playing longer in Buffalo, when he officially announced his retirement, he signed a one-day contract with the Vikings, earning his spot in team lore.

THE WORST

1. Bernard Berrian – The Vikings have a long history of signing garbage wide receivers in free agency,  but nobody can touch Berrian. A deep threat like few others, he was a part-time, one-trick pony in Chicago. He didn’t catch a lot of passes, but when he did, they went for big chunks of yards. In 2008 – which would become a horrible year historically for the Vikings – Berrian was signed to a six-year, $42 million contract with the expectation of being the go-to receiver in the offense.

Even with Brett Favre on board, Berrian was a pedestrian receiver at best. His numbers dropped each of the three years he was with the Vikings – 48-964-7 in 2008, 55-618-4 in 2009 and 28-252-0 in 2010 – and made more news getting in Twitter beefs and being more concerned about his wardrobe than the playbook. The Vikings have swung and missed on a handful of former Packers and Bears receivers, but the cost that Berrian came with was too hard to handle.

2. Fred Smoot – Smoot was one of the first high-end cornerbacks to come in the wake of the cockiness of Deion Sanders – he replaced Sanders in Washington in 2001, teaming up with Champ Bailey. With quarterbacks fearful of throwing balls Bailey’s way, Smoot got picked on and became an impressive, albeit arrogant, player locking up with No. 2 receivers. He was asked to do the same with Minnesota, being paired up with Winfield to be a 1-2 punch that would make the Vikings defense lock down over the top after he was signed to a six-year, $34 million deal in 2005.

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The biggest news Smoot made in his first season was unofficially donning the captain’s hat as the big baller and shot-caller of the infamous Love Boat scandal, serving as host and de facto pimp. Only he and Culpepper survived until Brad Childress showed up. Daunte never played another down for the Vikings and Smoot was so deep in the doghouse he got butt-splinters from the back wall.

Every now and again, you’ll see a guy in Vikings Smoot jersey. Take the time to give him a once-over. Dollars to donuts he is a self-described playboy who happens to be a football fan.

3. Madieu Williams – There is plenty of talk about Vikings interest in a Cincinnati Bengals safety these days. They’ve dipped their organizational toe in that water before and got scalded.

After four seasons in Cincinnati, where he battled injuries but posted solid numbers when healthy, the Vikings had a need at safety and the cap space to allow him to swallow up a lot of it – a six year, $33 million deal.

He suffered a neck injury in training camp his first season with the Vikings and it was all downhill from there. Mike Zimmer told Xavier Rhodes to put on boxing gloves to improve his defensive skills. The Vikings of 2008-10 vintage asked Williams to take his off because it appeared his fingers were allergic to footballs.

Williams was a genuinely nice guy, but he showed up on too many opponent end-of-year highlight films to warrant the kind of contract the Tripod of Authority gave him.

4. Josh Freeman – It’s hard to put a guy on the all-time list who only played one game, but that’s the same reason why any list would be remiss without him. A player of diminishing returns after being an inflated first-round franchise dice roll of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by 2013 Freeman had worn out his welcome in Bucsville. Mired deep on the bench, the pirates opted to throw chum overboard and cut Freeman.

Clearing waivers and having Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder as their QB 1-2 punch, Rick Spielman decided to defy logic and not only sign Freeman to a $3 million stipend to finish the season, the Vikings made him the starter in a prime time game against the New York Giants.

He had the opportunity for career reclamation. How’d he do?

He completed 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. The only reason he didn’t have more picks was that his incompletions were about 10 yards over everybody’s head.

5. Koren Robinson – In four years in Seattle, Seldom Scorin’ Koren was a talent that got Seattle and Mike Holmgren to use the ninth pick in the 2001 draft on him. The problem was that Robinson had a history of enjoying his beverages (more often of an adult nature). It led to a falling out with the organization and, after a stint in rehab, Robinson moved on to Minnesota.

He did his best to be a model citizen and prove his critics wrong. The Vikings signed him to a one-year, team-friendly, clause-heavy deal and he lived up to it. His numbers weren’t great as a receiver – 22-347-1 with 80 of those yards coming on his only touchdown – but he went to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. Sound familiar?

However, his legacy was chiseled in stone after the Vikings gave him a three-year, $12.7 million contract extension to avoid free agency in 2006. Big things were expected in training camp that year, until the Vikings had a home preseason game in which players could go back to their own homes and needed to be back in Mankato by curfew.

Robinson had fallen off the wagon but needed to get back to Gage Hall in time. He put the pedal to the metal. The only problem? He was above the legal intoxication limit and driving 100 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone, earning a stiff law enforcement cocktail. Ten days later, he was cut loose and his Vikings legacy ended.

As the Vikings prepare to potentially open their checkbook to bring in outside free agents, they do so with the reward/risk combination that made this list possible. Vikings fans can only hope whatever signings are executed are much closer to the first five than the last five.


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