With the opening of free agency, the lights have been on into the night all week at Winter Park as general manager Rick Spielman and the personnel and coaching staff of the Minnesota Vikings have been burning the midnight oil.
On Thursday, Spielman took some time out of his schedule to appear on KFAN Radio to talk to play-by-play man Paul Allen, who peppered Spielman with questions about the Vikings draft process.
Spielman said that when it comes to pulling the trigger on free-agent signings, it isn’t just him who makes the final decisions. It’s truly a group effort.
“We do it as a collective group,” Spielman said. “I’ll listen to the coaches and listen to our scouts and personnel department and then I evaluated all these guys as well. Then we tie in Rob Brzezinski. I’ll tie the personnel side with the coaching side of it and tie it into the business side. We all work extremely hard on this.”
Things don’t always go as planned in free agency. There may be players that the Vikings feel would be an ideal fit on their roster, but they’re not going to get in bidding wars with other teams because that isn’t their organizational philosophy.
As such, much like Spielman’s approach to the draft, they lay out several different scenarios to address needs in free agency.
“We have a game plan in place,” Spielman said. “If the game plan changes, you have Plan B and Plan C. It’s a collective group effort and all of us work very hard at it.”
As is typically the case, once the gun sounds to start the free agent race, more than $1 billion in contract numbers get thrown out in the first couple of days of free agency. The biggest splash the Vikings have made to date has been the signing of guard Alex Boone and Spielman pointed out that there are waves in free agency – right now we’re still riding the first wave. By next week, that could change.
The Vikings are no strangers to holding off making moves in free agency, because sometimes the best values come to those who wait.
“After that first week, the market will kind of settle down a little bit,” Spielman said. “Then all of the sudden, as it cools down a little bit, players are looking for jobs and looking for opportunities. We found Jerome Felton like that a couple of years ago. Tom Johnson we found a couple of years ago. (They) were looking for an opportunity and they ended up being very good football players for us.”
One of the issues the Vikings will be facing in the coming years is having players in-house whose rookie contracts will be expiring. Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith both had the fifth-year option of their rookie deals extended and the same may be true this year with Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes. The year after that, they will have the same issue with Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr.
As a result, the Vikings don’t look simply at the current crop of free agents and how much money they have to spend this year. They take a more cerebral approach and look at the long-term picture and what players will be due big contracts on the horizon, which can play into the current state of being players in free agency.
“I sit with everybody and lay out our plan for this year that, from a financial standpoint, what is the worst-case scenario our roster could look like if everybody made the top dollar they possibly could make on this roster,” Spielman said. “We plan off of that and then we look at the roster in 2017 potentially and 2018 potentially and understand the players that are coming up (for free agency). We try to be aggressive as we can, but try to be smart about it as we add players to this roster.”
While the Vikings aren’t making huge moves in free agency like the Raiders, Giants and Jaguars have done this week, there is a method to their madness. Spielman is looking to fashion a roster that will have competition at every level.
Whether it’s for a starting job or the 53rd spot on the roster, Spielman is looking for players who will push to win their spot and that competition makes the team better – both now and in the future.
“The one thing I want to do is create as much competition as possible,” Spielman said. “If you can create competition, either guys are going to rise up or they’re going to get beat out. We also have to be conscientious of what’s coming down the road in ‘17 and ‘18 as we have some of these young guys that will be entering the last year of their deals that we will be looking to extend as well.”
That sort of competition came into play last year, as the next man up became something of a mantra for the team. The Vikings lost two starting offensive linemen in training camp, had lingering injuries at linebacker during the season and, at one point, had their top four safeties battling serious injuries at the same time.
The kind of competition Spielman is looking to foster is what helped the Vikings survive the rash of injuries that befell the team last season. Because of the competition and depth that was created at key spots, the Vikings were able to absorb the injuries without taking a giant step backward because they had contingency plans in place.
“You can’t predict injuries,” Spielman said. “If you have quality people and two or three guys fighting for a starting spot or a backup spot or to make a 53-man roster, I think if you have that much competition and you do go down with an injury where unfortunately you may lose a player for a year, you have quality depth behind them to step in and hopefully you don’t miss a beat.”
One of the keys that Spielman looks for in free agency is having someone who has more than just a passing familiarity with a given player. Any free agent signing comes with a risk. Not every play is a scheme fit with a new team, so having a level of comfort in knowing what a player can bring, his worth ethic, his attitude and other attributes you don’t find on a stat sheet are important.
“We’re not huge into the free agent market, but when there is an opportunity to get players, especially if our coaches know these players or have relationships with these players and have worked with these players and know what their strengths and weaknesses are, it’s like bringing in a player that you’ve had in the past,” Spielman said. “I don’t feel it’s as big a risk as sometimes when you go out and sign guys that you have no relationship with.”
With the first wave of free agency winding down – Spielman is at the Ohio State Pro Day on Friday – there is a momentary lull in the activity around Winter Park, but that doesn’t mean Spielman has hung a “Gone Scoutin’” sign on the front door and there is no activity. His staff is still working the phones and setting up potential player visits for the coming days and weeks.
It may seem like the beehive of activity has slowed to a crawl after a busy first week, but Spielman said the process doesn’t stop at any time between the start of free agency and the start of the regular season. If there’s a player who can make the team better, whether through free agency, the draft or a trade, the Vikings are going to keep their options open.
“We’re never done,” Spielman said. “Tom Johnson was three weeks (after free agency began) when we signed him. We’ve already targeted about five or six other guys. Are we going to spend big money on free agents? Absolutely not. But if there are guys out there looking for opportunities to come in and compete on a very good football team, we’re always going to welcome them to come in and compete.”