Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman predicted before free agency started that the team would “dabble” in free agency. Only 24 hours into free agency, it looked like, for Vikings fans, a little dab would do ya.
There was no monster signing of Kelechi Osemele, the top-rated offensive lineman to hit free agency without restriction. The Vikings left the monster signing of Osemele to the Oakland Raiders, who entered free agency with more than double the cap space of the Vikings. Oakland signed Osemele to a five-year, $58.5 million contract, an average of $11.7 million per season, with $25.4 million guaranteed.
When the bidding got too high, the Vikings quickly moved on to Alex Boone, who was ranked fourth by Scout.com in the guard market behind Osemele, Richie Incognito and Evan Mathis, and Boone has five fewer years of wear and tear on his body than Incognito and Mathis, including his first two seasons when he wasn’t a starter.
Spielman admitted that the Vikings weren’t going to spend “big money” in the free-agent market, but they chose judiciously yet were aggressive enough to pull down three potential starters – Boone, safety Michael Griffin and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur – without breaking the bank.
Boone will start, likely at left guard, allowing Brandon Fusco to return to right guard, where he played much better. Griffin will compete for a starting job, along with Andrew Sendejo, next to Harrison Smith. Lamur will compete for a starting spot at weakside linebacker, maybe with Chad Greenway if he re-signs, a draft pick or perhaps Audie Cole.
The Vikings weren’t even close to the big spenders in free agency, but they didn’t have to be. The New York Giants spent more than $105 million in guaranteed money and an average of $38.75 million per year on defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Giants were dead last in defense last year and last in pass defense. The Vikings seem to be doing just fine with their defensive line.
Minnesota stood no chance of keeping up with the big spenders in free agency because Spielman and company have committed to re-signing their own important players, not just in the recent past but also in the future. Money spent now is money that can’t be spent on a Harrison Smith extension or a possible Matt Kalil extension (if he plays well in 2016). Or in the coming years on Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater, and so on down the ladder of life in the NFL.
History has taught the Vikings that targeted free agents can help, but it’s not the answer to building a long-term winner. If you needed any proof, look no further than a graphic floated from NFL Media: The top six teams for spending on unrestricted free agents the past 10 years were, in order, the Miami Dolphins ($629 million), Jacksonville Jaguars ($614M), the Philadelphia Eagles ($607M), Washington Redskins ($534M), Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($511M) and Cleveland Browns ($500M). Among those big free-agent spenders, only the Eagles at .547 have a winning percentage over .500 over the last decade. The Dolphins are .419 in the past 10 years, the Jaguars .363, Redskins .394, Buccaneers .363 and Browns .319 are also losers over their big 10-year spending spree.
The Browns are the unfortunate ending to the comfort offered to other fan bases that feel tortured: “You could always be a fan of the … Browns.” And it didn’t get any better for their fans on the opening day of free agency as they lost four of their best players – receiver Travis Benjamin, center Alex Mack, tackle Mitchell Schwartz and safety Tashaun Gipson.
But even Browns fans should be able to take comfort in another warning about free agency. According to NFL Media, of the 86 players originally selected to the Pro Bowl in December (not the replacements), only two of them, Darrelle Revis and Mike Iupati, were free agents in 2015.
A great player for one team and one scheme doesn’t always continue to be as great in a new system and circumstance, further underscoring the Vikings’ philosophy to keep their own good ones and limit the feeling that the grass is always greener over the fence. The cash is often greener for players, but the return on investment isn’t always there for the endorsers on their checks (yeah, we know, it’s direct deposit these days).
Give the Vikings credit for at least getting involved in the Osemele sweepstakes, and then for bowing out before they, instead of the Raiders, made him easily the highest-paid guard in NFL history by a long shot. Instead, the Vikings hired a fireplug in Boone, who will start and, via the domino effect, add to the depth on the offensive line.
In addition to Kalil and Boone, who will likely be paired on the left side of the line, the Vikings get John Sullivan back at center, probably Fusco back at right guard, Phil Loadholt back to compete for a spot at right tackle with T.J. Clemmings, likely Mike Harris and maybe Andre Smith, who is flying to Minnesota today for a free-agent visit.
There are a lot of ways to slice up analysis in free agency, but it’s often fool’s gold for fans, a means to get them excited about the future in March, only to be let down over the results in December. Some of the winningest teams in the past 10 years, like the Patriots, Packers and Steelers, do very little in free agency because they foster and maintain their own talent. The Vikings are getting to that place, where money spent on their own talent is better than shipping it to unknown entities.
They may “dabble” in free agency in the future, too, but expect their process this year to be the norm of the future.