While the Vikings aren't desperate at any one position, especially on offense, at the start of free agency, they do have many needs and several options with each of those needs. With as good a salary-cap picture as any team in the league, the Vikings could be the top beneficiary of the lack of a collective bargaining agreement, at least in the next month. Several teams are expected to purge themselves of good players in order to get below the $94.5 million cap figure and the Vikings could be waiting with arms and options wide open.
Since Vikings coach Brad Childress believes in building from the front lines back, we'll start there in our preview of the potential on offense in free agency.
Viking Update has learned that the team is still in contact with representatives for guard Tonui Fonoti, but they also are reportedly interested in San Diego Chargers guard Chris Dielman, who is a restricted free agent, and New Orleans center LeCharles Bentley. Fonoti is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, and there remains some concern about his weight issues (he checked in with the Vikings weight more than 400 pounds and is believed to have lost about 15 pounds since then). Bentley can play either center or guard and has been successful at both, being named to the 2003 Pro Bowl squad as a guard, then switching to center in training camp of 2004 and starting all 16 games and being a Pro Bowl alternate. He was a starter in the Pro Bowl at center this year. The signing of Bentley would be a security blanket at center, where Pro Bowler Matt Birk is expected to return to full strength after sitting out a season on injured reserve following his fourth surgery in 13 months.
The options in the interior line are many and varied, with Chris Liwienski, Marcus Johnson, Adam Goldberg and Fonoti all capable of starting and performing well with consistent parts surrounding them.
Left tackle isn't an issue this year, with Bryant McKinnie having his best season in 2005, but the Vikings might also have an interest in Philadelphia tackle Jon Runyan, who leads the list of five very strong tackles scheduled for free agency and has played in Childress' system in Philadelphia. The Vikings could get by at right tackle with either Mike Rosenthal and/or Marcus Johnson. Other top options on the free agent market include L.J. Shelton (Cleveland), Kenyatta Walker (Tampa Bay) and Jason Fabini (New York Jets). Fabini was released in a cap-related move last week.
The Vikings should be set at tight end with Jim Kleinsasser and Jermaine Wiggins expected to return and Jeff Dugan and Richard Angulo still under contract.
At quarterback, the Vikings' tenuous situation with Daunte Culpepper was apparently put to rest last week when owner Zygi Wilf said at the Combine that the Vikings were prepared to pay his $6 million roster bonus in mid-March. If, however, that was pre-trade posturing, the Vikings would have an interest in talking with San Diego free-agent-to-be Drees Brees in Culpepper's absence, according to a league source.
If Culpepper is for sure part of the Vikings' long-term plans, that still would leave the Vikings looking for a third-string quarterback. Last year's third-stringer, Shaun Hill, is not expected to return, and the Vikings' intentions with J.T. O'Sullivan, a midseason pickup, are unclear. In questioning almost 200 college prospects at the Combine it seemed clear that the Vikings were focusing on younger quarterbacks, as a few prospects told Scout.com of the interest they were receiving from the Vikings.
Childress said the team is thin at running back, and indications remain that Moe Williams likely will retire. That leaves Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason and Adimchinobe Echemandu on the roster. Michael Bennett has been told he won't be re-signed by Minnesota, leaving only Moore with starting experience. Onterrio Smith is eligible for re-instatement in May following a one-year suspension, but since the Vikings aren't allowed to talk with him before that, they will have to move on into free agency and the draft expecting that he won't be available.
While the Vikings also talked with at least four running backs at the Combine, they likely will need to add an experienced runner as well. The strongest interest Scout.com has been able to uncover is going in the direction of Ravens running back Chester Taylor. The Vikings also have an interest in Seattle's Maurice Morris, but he isn't considered durable enough to handle the rigors of full-time duty as a featured back. Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James would be the big-money backs, but the Vikings might be willing to let other teams get in a bidding war for those two and turn their attention to other tier-two, top-10 backs available in free agency.
Fullback is also a consideration, as the Vikings haven't had a true fullback on their roster in several years and Childress signed street free agent Joey Goodspeed last month. The team might want more depth there as well, depending on the amount of use Childress is planning for that position. There are a handful of strong candidates scheduled to hit the market, but fullbacks usually aren't a top priority for teams.
Childress indicated he liked the personnel he had at wide receiver, with or without Koren Robinson, presumably making that a low-priority position for the team. They will tender Nate Burleson as a restricted free agent if they aren't able to reach a long-term contract before the start of free agency, scheduled for March 3.
The options are many, and the Vikings are willing. All that's left is to see which other players hit the market in what is being described as "Bloody Thursday"—a term referencing some cap-strapped teams' desperate attempts to fit under the new cap without a long-term extension of the CBA in site.
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