Offensively, Free Agency Looks Good

When the Vikings' season is over, the front office and coaching staff will start reviewing their options in free agency. We get an early start on that by looking at the Vikings scheduled to be free agents this offseason. Today we look at those on the offensive side of the ball, as well as the special teamers.

The Vikings could have as many as 18 free agents-to-be on their 53-man roster at the end of the season. Here is a look at the ones on the offensive side of the ball, along with the practice squad guys.

Morten Andersen — The Vikings signed the 44-year-old kicker before their first regular-season game. He has provided a consistent kicking option inside 40 yards and has even made some that prove his range is better than that, but the Vikings have been searching for a place-kicker/kickoff man all in one package since Mike Tice took over the team, and there's no reason to think they won't go shopping for that guy again this offseason. Last offseason, they put in an offer sheet on Chicago's Paul Edinger, but the Bears matched that offer.

Jose Cortez — Cortez was signed in the middle of the season as a kickoff specialist and got better after the first couple of weeks. However, with the team's desire to use one spot for a place-kicker and kickoff man, Cortez isn't likely to be back next season unless the Vikings think he has a chance to be a consistent place-kicker too.

Aaron Elling — The two-year veteran could be the most likely of the three kickers to return next season. After a miserable training camp and preseason, the Vikings re-signed him a week into the season for kickoffs, and his consistency was good there until he broke a bone making a tackle on a kickoff return in the middle of the season. The Vikings figure they gave Elling too much feedback during the offseason and confused him. They could opt to give him another shot without kicking guru Doug Blevins by his side for every practice kick.

Kelly Campbell — Campbell was signed as a rookie free agent in 2002 after going undrafted and has proved to be a valuable role player. He can return kicks and stretches the field in a limited role on offense. Chances are he'll be back if he doesn't overprice himself.

Billy Conaty — The seven-year veteran from Virginia Tech was a nice reserve player for the Vikings during two stretches while Pro Bowler Matt Birk was recovering from separate sports hernia surgeries. Conaty's status entering the offseason will depend heavily on Cory Withrow's status. If Withrow re-signs with the Vikings, Conaty can probably find more opportunity as a backup elsewhere. If Withrow leaves via free agency, Conaty is a nice backup behind Birk.

David Dixon — The 11-year veteran keeps plugging along. The talk of him being put out to pasture has been surfacing since 2002,but the mammoth guard continues to produce, and a new strength and conditioning program may have given him a revitalized stamina during the 2004 season. If re-signed, he would cost the Vikings a minimum of $765,000, probably a decent amount more. They could opt to roll the dice with their younger talent in the wings, like Adam Goldberg or Nat Dorsey. But if Dixon doesn't demand much more than the minimum, he should be back if he wants to.

Gus Frerotte — Frerotte still believes he has starting potential in the NFL, and confidence is a good quality to have at quarterback. However, with so many young guns looking good this year, Frerotte's belief and the reality of the league may not match. He has been a quality backup, but some argue his approach changes when he gets a long-term starting role. He wants to test the free-agent waters, and the Vikings will likely let him go searching for bigger money and opportunity. If he doesn't find it right out of the free-agency gate, he could return.

Adam Haayer — The backup offensive lineman isn't likely to find much of a market for his services elsewhere since his playing time has been limited in the past two years, much the way Withrow's value couldn't be accurately accessed when he was eligible for free agency last year because of his sparse field time. He's probably a minimum-salary guy who will have to fight to find a roster spot again next season.

Shaun Hill — Hill's most likely landing spot is with the Vikings again, maybe as a No. 2 guy but more likely returning as a No. 3 with either Frerotte or another veteran free agent in front of him. If he does get a shot the No. 2 spot, he could be another Brad Johnson waiting in the wings. He's had three seasons to develop without the pressure of playing.

Ryan Hoag — The fact that Ryan Hoag played at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn. helped earn him a chance. His speed as a potential return man kept him around, but ultimately the Vikings decided he wasn't quite ready for playing on Sundays and relegated him to the practice squad. He may get another shot at the roster in 2005 if they don't figure out their return game with a proven playmaker in that role.

Larry Ned — Ned is stuck behind a deep offensive backfield in 2004, but he could move up a spot in 2005 if the Vikings make a trade with a running back in front of him. Ned's best shot at another year on an NFL roster is with the Vikings because they appreciate his special teams ability and are intrigued by his potential in the backfield.

Brandon Netwon — The mammoth practice squad guard showed some potential in practices, something both sides might be willing to explore again in 2005.

Shannon Snell — Snell is another midseason signing to the practice squad. Flip a coin on this one, as limited exposure to him makes it possible he could return or be weeded out by other developmental guys.

Butchie Wallace — As with Ned the year before, Wallace showed some positive signs in training camp, but the best chance he has to move up to the active roster from the practice squad in 2005 is if someone in front of him is moved in a trade and the Vikings don't don't draft another back. He will most likely be brought back to camp.

Jermaine Wiggins — All the tight end wanted was a shot to be used often in the receiving game in 2004, which is why he turned down a better offer from his former team, the Carolina Panthers, to pursue a better opportunity in Minnesota. His payoff comes as a free agent again in 2005. Wiggins was invaluable to the Vikings' passing game after it lost Jim Kleinsasser in the first game of the season and Randy Moss for essentially one-third of the season. Now the Vikings will be forced to decide if they want to pay big money to two tight ends or take the chance and let Wiggins go elsewhere. The guess here is that Wiggins will get offered more in free agency than the Vikings are willing to spend with Kleinsasser coming back next year. Wiggins was one of only four tight ends in team history with at least 50 catches.

NOTE: Free-agent and draft coverage will start in earnest once the Vikings' season ends, with coverage from the Senior Bowl, combine and pro day workouts for the draft and interviews with Vikings personnel people regarding free agency throughout the "offseason."

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