More than two weeks into free agency, the 2017 Minnesota Vikings are already looking markedly different than the 2016 team, but the question becomes, even without a first-round draft pick (traded last year to acquire Sam Bradford), how many roster spots can be expected to be filled by rookies – whether drafted or undrafted.
A year ago, the Vikings made a slew of free-agent signings in March, but the vast majority of them were their own players.
The Vikings have already parted with 12 players who were critical parts of the team heading into last season and have brought in just three outside free agents expected to be starters – and one of them just had ankle surgery.
The questions seem much more numerous on offense and go beyond the dozen players who are already gone.
At quarterback, there remain legitimate questions about the health of Teddy Bridgewater, but 2016 backup Shaun Hill has been a free agent for more than two weeks without finding a new contract. With backups consistently coming off the board, what’s the plan?
The Vikings parted ways with Adrian Peterson and replaced him with Latavius Murray, days before his ankle surgery, but Matt Asiata and Zach Line remain unsigned, meaning at least two running back roster spots need to be addressed. Will both come in the draft?
The Vikings lost tight end Rhett Ellison, which helped Riki Ellison make headlines for the first time in years, leaving another vacant roster spot.
At wide receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson are gone and nobody has been signed to replace them. Depth at wide receiver is always a team need, yet to date the Vikings have done nothing to add any veteran bodies. How many draft picks can be used here?
The only area the team has addressed with any urgency has been the offensive line, but it was a necessity. Fans have drawn their own conclusions as to the level of improvement that Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers bring to the table, but you have to factor in the number of players who are gone – Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Mike Harris, Brandon Fusco and Jake Long. Is offensive line a draft priority or not?
Defensively, things aren’t as pronounced, but they’re not nonexistent. They’ve added Datone Jones on the defensive line, but released Scott Crichton, a decision many thought was two years coming, and haven’t re-signed Justin Trattou. They have a starting group and decent depth, but once again, another position with no outside vets coming in.
The Vikings haven’t added any linebackers, but Chad Greenway and Audie Cole are both gone. Greenway wasn’t on the field nearly as much as he was the majority of his career, but he consistently graded out well when he was on the field and gave the team some much-needed veteran leadership – something in even greater need considering the losses sustained this month. Cole was a valued core special teams player and, when asked to play defense, held his own. In the big picture of things, both can be replaced. In the locker room? That will take longer.
The same is true in the secondary. The Vikings have the talent there, but allowed Captain Munnerlyn to leave. A popular locker room guy and a player who improved the longer he was in the Zimmer defense, the Munnerlyn exit is apparently opening the door for 2016 rookie Mackensie Alexander. Those are high expectations, unless yet another unnamed draft pick is going to compete for the job.
Even punter Jeff Locke was a key player to the Vikings special teams the last four years. From the time he arrived, he wasn’t even challenged in training camp, so replacing that kind of faith likely won’t come with an unchallenged rookie and, given the current vacancies, it doesn’t seem the logical use of a draft pick.
The Vikings have come up with a game plan for what remains of March and April. To date, reading those tea leaves is hard. A lot of guys are gone. A few are hanging in limbo. Only three outside starters have come in.
If the plan is to create a roster of guys in their early to middle 20s, the Vikings are a long way there at the moment. The question is whether that will be the demographic that brings the Vikings back to the playoffs in 2017.
A little more than a month from now, we’ll be connecting a lot more dots than we are now. How many of those dots will be connected on draft weekend will likely be the prelude to bringing the 2017 roster into focus. From the looks of things at the moment, the roster of players that hit Mankato are going to be a lot younger than any group the Vikings have had in training camp in a long time.