The Vikings were 5-11 last season and did not finish in last place in the NFC Central only because the Detroit Lions managed to put together a completely clueless bunch from the front office down.
While it is questionable if there is any hope for the Lions, that is not the case with the Vikings. Sure, finishing six games below .500 might have meant a long rebuilding period was on the horizon for a team 20 or 25 years ago, but that simply is no longer the case. Just ask the New England Patriots, who went from a last-place 5-11 finish in 2000 to a Super Bowl championship in 2001. Or the Chicago Bears, who also were cellar dwellers at 5-11 in 2000 but won the NFC Central title last season.
The ability to manage the salary cap and make good decisions on free agents and draft picks has caused a drastic change in what was once called rebuilding but is more accurately retooling when it comes to the NFL.
"I think the biggest change has come about with the institution of the salary cap," said Jeff Robinson, the Vikings' coordinator of pro personnel. "That's one of the reasons why you can't ever really predict how a team is going to finish anymore. If you have a lot of room under the salary cap, your roster can go from being totally depleted to pretty good in a hurry as long as you show some patience and are doing the proper things. You look at what happened to Dallas and San Francisco when their rosters got depleted over the course of time in the '90s because they did a lot of things with their salary cap early on when this stage of free agency was created.
"They had to pay for it, but now, all of a sudden, they are both quality teams again. In essence, if you draft smart and manage the salary cap wisely, then that transition can happen really quickly. New England spent wisely in free agency on a lot of quality players that they didn't invest a lot of money in, and they drafted wisely. All of a sudden they went from a team that couldn't make the playoffs to … their chemistry clicked and they had the right players and bang. They are still under the salary cap and at the same time they were successful in a hurry.
"Chicago did the exact same thing. They drafted wisely for a couple of years and they brought in some free agents that they didn't pay a lot of money to and then all of a sudden they are a playoff team."
Anyone who has followed the Vikings this off-season under new coach Mike Tice knows Minnesota is following the same type of path that New England and Chicago took during the spring and summer of 2001.
The Vikings spent the first wave of free agency leading up to the draft reshaping various parts of the roster and trimming or not retaining players such as Mitch Berger, Cris Carter, Dale Carter, Robert Griffith and Kailee Wong. They also were active in free agency, adding defensive ends Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell and tight end Hunter Goodwin (Miami), defensive tackle Darius Holland (Cleveland), linebacker Henri Crockett (Atlanta), defensive back Corey Chavous (Arizona) and receiver D'Wayne Bates (Chicago).
Much like the Patriots, the Vikings got these players at the price that had been set by Tice and his staff. This left the Vikings approximately $8 million under the salary cap heading into the draft. While just more than $4 million of that is slated for the draft picks, it still gives the Vikings more operating room for undrafted free agents and the second free agency period, which will start June 1 when teams will release players to get salary-cap relief.
The Vikings will be actively seeking receivers, where the depth is lacking once you get past Randy Moss, in June. The Vikings did not draft a receiver, and while they also would love to add a nose tackle, teams usually don't let go of big linemen or capable cornerbacks.
Receivers are another story. Almost certain to hit the market are the Packers' Antonio Freeman, the Jaguars' Keenan McCardell and the Chiefs' Derrick Alexander.
"All of them have some situation, whether it be age, injuries or character," Robinson said, referring to the crop of players who will be let go in June. "There is a reason why they do get cut when they do, outside of monetary reasons usually. … It's just a matter of how that particular player will fit in to what we are trying to do."
The advantage the Vikings will have this summer is they will be in a position to pursue those players instead of sitting it out while other clubs spend.
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