Salary Cap Will Be Key in '04

28 of the NFL's 32 teams are already preparing for the first official phase of the 2004 season -- free agency. The Vikings could be huge players this year...if they want to be.

Free agency has helped create the parity that exists in the NFL. How much parity is there around the league? Consider this: excluding expansion Houston, which came into the league for the 2002 season, 20 of the 31 established NFL teams have made the playoffs in the last two years. Parity not only exists, it runs the engine of the NFL.

There are two aspects of creating a team on the rise -- strong drafting to build in-house talent and going outside the organization in free agency to buy players with established track records.

Following the success of the 1998 Vikings, then-General Manager Jeff Diamond made it a point to re-sign all the players he felt were needed to keep the Vikings competitive. In some instances, it meant overspending, as in the case of Randall Cunningham. That decision, spotting the limited window of opportunity for the Vikings to be a Super Bowl champion, the Vikes were saddled with a salary cap hit that carried from 1999 to 2002.

Last year was the first time the Vikings weren't strangled by the cap. That has changed in a big way, according to the salary cap numbers obtained by Viking Update. A total of 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL are $9 million or less over the salary cap, with six teams (the Patriots, Bucs, Broncos, Steelers, Dolphins and Titans) over the projected $78.1 million cap for 2004. In the Titans case, where Diamond ironically went after leaving the Vikings, the team is a whopping $16.4 million over the cap -- meaning several veterans will either have to go or restructure their contracts to get the team under the cap.

No such problem for the Vikings, who may have the best or, at worst, second best cap situation of any team in the NFL. The Vikings are currently $20.2 million under the cap, according to the numbers given to VU. Only the Ravens ($24 million), the Eagles ($22.8 million) and the Saints ($22.6 million) have more available money. However, the Eagles and Ravens have some high-ticket players up for free agency that are critical starters.

For the Vikings, Jim Kleinsasser and Fred Robbins are the primary free agent casualties and, to be honest, while the Vikings want to keep them both, there is no way they will get in a bidding war to keep either of them if the price escalates too high.

Instead, the Vikings and Saints, who also have few big-name free agents in the Class of 2004, can go out and spend money to fix their most glaring weaknesses. The Vikings could find themselves bidding on a handful of Pro Bowl caliber cornerbacks in what promises to be the best CB class in recent memory. In addition, the Vikings could also add a game-changing every-down defensive end with a proven record of performance -- immediately curing their two most pressing needs.

Last year, the Vikings refused to get into bidding wars, instead signing mid-level free agents like CBs Denard Walker and Ken Irvin, OT Mike Rosenthal, a surprisingly inexpensive Chris Claiborne and QB Gus Frerotte. Each assumed an important role with the team and, with more money available this year, the Vikings could be one of the teams that goes out and makes one monster signing to fix an immediate need with a Pro Bowl talent, or, at the least, continue to spend what the market bears to add players at key positions like D-line, cornerback and wide receiver.

For the record, Detroit has $14.6 million available, which Matt Millen will likely spend all to get Terrell Owens, the Bears have $9 million and the Packers just $3.4 million -- as Brett Favre's cap number gets more problematic.

With a strong draft and two or three key free agent signings, the Vikings have the chance to make the jump in the NFC North. With the Packers already strapped for cash and likely facing cuts of veterans like we saw last year and the Bears and Lions too far away from domination to spend enough to make them contenders immediately, the Vikings have another window of opportunity like the one that presented itself in 1998. Look for head coach Mike Tice, who doesn't have a lot of slack on the leash from McCombs, to make every effort to get at last one marquee name signed in the free agency period -- if not more.

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