Sunday slant: A tender balance

The Vikings tendered six of their seven restricted free agents, but they have only come to terms with one of their five unrestricted free agents. It's a delicate balance of salary, timing and trust that could leave the team with less experience in backup roles.

Since the end of their playoff run, the Vikings were expected to be relatively quiet on the free-agent front, at least initially, for a couple of reasons, but one thing that is surprising is that they only got one of their five unrestricted free agents signed before free agency started.

First, an explanation. The Vikings came out of the free-agent gate extremely aggressively in 2006 – signing Ben Leber, Ryan Longwell and Chester Taylor in the opening hours of free agency, then poison-pilling their way to Steve Hutchinson. In 2007, things were a bit more tempered with Visanthe Shiancoe and Bobby Wade being the main additions in the first week of free agency, but they became aggressive again in 2008, signing Thomas Tapeh, Madieu Williams and Bernard Berrian. In what seemed like an every-other-year trend, 2009 brought little in the way of free agency.

In a normal year, you might expect them to make a big push in free agency this year since, well, it's an even year and this coaching staff and personnel department apparently do their best free-agent work in those years. However, there is much more holding them back, partly because they are victims of their own success and partly because of a thin market.

First, there are fewer unrestricted free agents this year. In fact, 212 players that would have been unrestricted were instead labeled more prohibitively with the restricted tag, meaning their team from 2009 could make them a tender that would require any other team to forfeit a draft pick to sign them. Teams are reluctant to give up draft picks in general, but analysts have raved about the depth of this year's draft especially, making it even less tempting for teams to dabble in the restricted free-agent market. And since there are so many more restricted free agents, that means far fewer unrestricted guys as well, leaving a less-than-stellar market.

After some big signings in the opening 30 hours of free agency, during which Chicago signed Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor and the Dolphins inked Karlos Dansby, the second tier of free agents aren't in as high demand.

But it's also that second tier of free agency that is most surprising from this viewpoint. With the Vikings unable to take part in the initial push of unrestricted free agency because they were required to lose one of their own free agents before signing another one – it's a new rule for the final four teams in the playoffs that was instituted because the NFL is entering the final year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement – they had their best chance with mid-level free agents by signing their own.

Instead, Jimmy Kennedy, Benny Sapp and Artis Hicks were looking for work. On Saturday, Hicks found it by signing a three-year, $9 million deal. All three are players that didn't start the majority of the Vikings' games, but they contributed often and they all made at least one start for the team. With a roster that advanced to the NFC Championship Game mostly returning, players that can add quality depth behind the starters and continue to play at a high level are important.

So why weren't they signed before free agency started? It appears the tendering of some restricted free agents may have cut into the opportunity for the unrestricted ones.

When the Vikings tendered Fred Evans at a second-round level, it caused a bit of a domino effect. It meant that when they wanted to tender Tarvaris Jackson and Ryan Cook at original-round levels, their draft-pick compensation went from the second round to the third round because of a little-known NFL rule that says when a restricted free agent is tendered at a level higher than his drafted round (Evans was drafted in the seventh round but tendered in the second round), any player drafted in that round but tendered at the original-round level would then have draft-pick compensation lowered by one round. So Cook and Jackson would only return a third-round pick to the Vikings if another team signed them to a deal that the Vikings declined to match.

A second-round tender might seem high for Evans, but if the Vikings realistically wanted to keep him, their only other options for tendering him lower would have yielded only a seventh-round pick or none at all. Evans' tender may have caused some complications for getting Kennedy back in the fold because Evans' tender called for $1.759 million in one-year compensation. With Pat Williams able to make $5 million in 2010 and Kevin Williams' salary set to escalate above the $6 million in 2011, the Vikings have a lot of money tied up in salaries to defensive tackles.

In essence, Kennedy could end up the odd man out, squeezed by Evans' high tender even though Kennedy played more.

Hicks faced a similar situation, although it's hard to quantify his value because of his versatility (tackles in general get paid more than guards). While Hicks wouldn't have returned to a starting job in Minnesota, he did make three starts in 2009 – two at right guard and one at right tackle and he also played left tackle when Bryant McKinnie was pulled against Carolina. The Redskins saw enough of him to give him a shot a starting job there. As for the Vikings, with Cook tendered at $1.176 million, he may end up being the new swing guy on the offensive line.

Kennedy and Hicks were both open to returning to the Vikings, but Hicks gave the team the opportunity to match his Redskins offer and it declined.

It's unclear whether the Vikings tendered Evans and Cook after they knew they weren't going to reach pre-deadline deals with Kennedy and Hicks, but it's crystal clear that there is a domino effect between tendering restricted free agents and how that can make it more difficult to reach agreements with unrestricted veterans at the same position.

It won't be until the regular season in underway, and only then if Evans and Cook are used, that we will know how the Vikings' decisions turned out on the offensive and defensive line.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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