Free agency expected to be active

With free agency set to begin in three weeks, the Vikings find themselves with about $20 million under the salary cap - once a huge number but now one that simply puts them in the middle of the pack. Despite having money to spend, it would seem the Vikings won't make a pre-free agency push to re-sign veterans Matt Birk or Darren Sharper.

There was a time when free agency meant that some teams were able to checker-jump their division rivals. Up until the last collective bargaining agreement exploded the size of the salary cap, you typically had about a third of the teams with plenty of money to spend, a third with only enough to re-sign their own free agents and another third that was either pressed tight up against the salary cap or forced to cut veteran players simply to get under the next year's cap.

Thanks to the dramatic increases in the cap in recent years, almost nobody is in cap hell anymore. Just about everybody has enough available money to make a splash in free agency. Current estimates have the Vikings with about $20 million in available cap room. Just four years ago, that would have put them at or near the top of the potential big spenders of free agency. Now it puts them in the middle of the pack – 14th according to most estimates.

Five teams have more than $30 million in available cap money – the Buccaneers ($42 million), the Cardinals ($41 million), the Broncos ($34 million), the Chiefs ($33 million) and the Titans ($31 million). A total of 21 teams have $16 million or more in available money and just four are currently over the salary cap – the Colts ($2 million), the Redskins ($3 million), the Saints ($5 million) and the Jets ($7 million).

As a result, the landscape of free agency has changed in a massive way. No longer are free agents able to deal with only half of the teams because now just about everyone has money to spend and even those in dire conditions can get back into the action by releasing a couple of high-priced veterans that have under-performed to their contract numbers.

Because of this increased competition, nobody is safe. Vikings players like Matt Birk and Darren Sharper will likely get plenty of interest from teams with a need at either center or safety. The Vikings historically have locked up players to long-term contracts before they can get to free agency, like Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, E.J. Henderson and Bryant McKinnie. The one common element to all of them except Big Pat is that they are young. Last year in free agency, the Vikings made their biggest splash by acquiring young players who still have plenty of time remaining in their careers – signing Bernard Berrian and Madieu Williams and trading for Jared Allen.

The new Vikings mindset has been to invest in young players with their best days ahead of them, not paying big money for players who they deem are nearing or at the downside slope of their careers. While veteran leaders like Birk and Sharper have been important components to the Vikings success in recent years, they now don't seem to fit in the organizational model the team has designed under Brad Childress and Rick Spielman.

What that might end up meaning is that both Birk and Sharper will be in different uniforms next year. The prospect of seeing Birk in Packers green and gold is an unpleasant thought, but something that could end up happening.

The bell for free agency will ring in three weeks and, while the Vikings are expected to be moderately active – translation: signing two or three players – the odds they bring back Birk or Sharper grows dimmer with each passing day. Why? They just don't fit into the new mindset at Winter Park about how to build a championship team.

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