Fans may be starting to get frustrated with a lack of signings for the Vikings, but Rick Spielman, the Vikings vice president of player personnel, continued with a theme that has been consistent since before the free-agent market opened this year: The free-agent class of 2009 just isn't all that impressive.
Last year, the Vikings took an aggressive approach in free agency, signing the top available wide receiver, Bernard Berrian, to a six-year, $42 million contract. They followed with their top free-agent safety, Madieu Williams, added a fullback that was eventually released and trade for the 2007 NFL sacks leader Jared Allen.
It was a multi-faceted and aggressive approach to the free-agent and trade markets, but with a record 14 players given the franchise tag around the league, essentially taking them off the free market, and top tackle targets Jordan Gross and Vernon Carey re-signing with their teams before free agency began, the Vikings were willing but the market was weak.
More than a week into free agency, the Vikings have lost Pro Bowl center Matt Birk to Baltimore, expect to lose Darren Sharper without much of an effort to re-sign him, and retained tight end Jim Kleinsasser and linebacker Heath Farwell with multi-year deals. Their biggest move was a trade for quarterback Sage Rosenfels.
However, the Vikings still haven't signed an outside free agent.
"Every year is different. It's like the draft. You don't draft the same position every year. It's not the same players every year in the draft. There is different depth at different positions, some superstars at one position. There might be a position that there's not a guy you have graded above the third or fourth round," said Spielman. "So it's an ever-changing evolution of players and I think the one thing the fans have got to realize is that we have an extremely talented football team with a lot of good parts and pieces.
"We got an explosive tight end, we've got, we feel, an explosive playmaker in Bernard Berrian that gave us speed. I mean, we have a very good offensive line still. We have two extremely talented running backs. We were very excited to get Jimmy Kleinsasser back because he's such a key part of the running game in what he does for us from a running game standpoint. On defense, E.J. (Henderson) is coming back for us next year off injury."
Like Berrian last year, the Vikings made a big effort to sign this year's top free-agent wide receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but after contemplating contract offers from the Vikings, Seahawks and Bengals, the 31-year-old opted to take a five-year deal with Seattle. That left some fans frustrated that the Vikings still haven't signed an outside free agent while other fans were glad they didn't "overspend" for a 31-year-old receiver who has never been considered his team's top receiver.
Spielman understands some of the fan frustration, but he and head coach Brad Childress have both cautioned that the team doesn't want to spend money just to spend it.
"Everybody wants to see, ‘What's new? What's new?' Well, sometimes you don't want to force anything that's not there, just to do it to do it, because to me I think sometimes it ends up being a waste of money," Spielman said.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, arguably the top player in free agency, received a contract that could be worth in excess of $100 million from the cash-crazy Washington Redskins. After that, the top-end options weren't many.
Of Scout.com's top-20 ranked free agents, only offensive tackle Marvel Smith, the 20th-ranked free agent, is a viable option. The vast majority of the others – besides Birk and Houshmandzadeh – were either franchised, tendered at a level requiring two first-round draft picks, re-signed hefty contracts with their own team or simply weren't in a need positions for the Vikings.
"A lot of the blue-chip type players either got done or got franchised before they were able to get out on the open market," Spielman said. "So there's a significant drop-off in talent. Now, there's some talented guys out there. I'm not going to degrade anyone that got their money and stuff like that.
"But, again, you've got to say, ‘OK we're going to pay this guy X. Who's he going to come in and beat out?' Technically before losing Birk we had 22 starters back. If Sharper doesn't come back we've got Tyrell. That's why we drafted him last year. When you have a pretty solid foundation of guys in the prime of their career, you could add some guys in the mix if the price is right and you think they come in and help.
Spielman expects there to be a little more movement in the second tier of free agency starting soon. Players may have a better understanding of their market values after a week of poking around in free agency, and the second level of free agents may want to get a deal signed before personnel evaluators around the league start attending college pro days in earnest and turning their attention to the draft more than free agency.
"Maybe there are some guys that their markets start falling off that we do have targeted that we like, that they could end up here before the draft," he said. "… The closer you get to the draft, and now, after this first couple two weeks of free agency, everybody is shifting back toward the draft. I'm going to be out the next couple of weeks, at workouts around the colleges, and everybody's out doing that thing. Coaches are going to be out doing stuff. Pretty soon, I think the players see that too, that, ‘If I don't get somewhere, to at least get something before the draft, that my options may be limited after the draft.'"
Spielman admitted that the Vikings haven't had a player in to visit since Houshmandzadeh left town last Sunday night and, as of Friday, he said there were no "specific" visits set up.
That is likely to change, but the market is turning already, only 10 days into free agency. Players and agents may be dropping their asking price and teams like the Vikings, with many of their starters already in place, may be getting back into the negotiating business in an attempt to add depth to their roster.
Sale prices could spur free-agent shopping
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