September 25, 2017

March-ing to Free Agency: The Week That Will Define Minnesota’s Offseason

Rick Spielman has been the full time GM for the Vikings since 2012 and has been with the Vikings for 11 years.

Just over a week ago all 32 teams and a heap of NFL media descended on Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine and after the dog and pony show is over on March 6th, the real meat of the NFL offseason truly begins. Just after midnight on Tuesday March 7th, NFL teams are allowed to speak to unrestricted free agents from other teams in what has become known as a “legal tampering period.” Any contact with another team’s free agent before Tuesday is considered tampering, but there is now a window for contact that is still before the official start of the 2017 Free Agency Period, which is the start of the new league year. No contracts may be signed until 3 p.m. CT on March 9th, but verbal agreements are often made in the early hours on Tuesday, and rarely are these agreements changed after they are reported.

Team and player options are also finalized before 3 p.m. on March 9th along with tenders for Restricted Free Agents (RFAs), which I will get into a little more in depth later.
What does this mean for Vikings fans? Well, since the offseason started and I wrote about what the Vikings should do (this offseason), the landscape of the Vikings offseason has become a lot clearer. Some of the biggest personnel questions have been answered and reports have put more clarity into the front office’s hopes for free agency. Here is what we know:

Peterson Hits Free Agency
Adrian Peterson is hitting unrestricted free agency come March 9th after the Vikings declined his ludicrous $18 million player option. This of course does not guarantee Peterson doesn’t play for Minnesota next year, but if you ask me the mostly likely scenario for a return would’ve been on a renegotiated contract, with Peterson never sniffing the free market. Peterson’s camp likely never believed the $18 million salary was a viable option and the Vikings knew that, meaning Minnesota’s leverage was greatest when they were the only team allowed to negotiate with him. It’s certainly possible, and probably even likely, that Peterson gets a dose of reality in free agency with his age, injury history, recent production, the deep RB draft class, and the devaluation of RB in general in the NFL.

If he’s unhappy with his market, it’s possible he comes back to Minnesota on a deal close to $5-6 million laden with incentives, as his contracts usually are. But for now, it’s safe to assume one team will pony up a contract that Adrian likes and he plays the rest of his career in colors other than purple and gold.

Fusco Cut
In one of the more seemingly inevitable moves of the offseason Brandon Fusco was officially cut. This opens a starting spot up at RG and saves Minnesota some money. Spielman is finally cutting ties on what turned out to be a disaster contract whose genesis came from one solid year at RG, and saw Fusco become one of the worst values of all starting guards in the NFL for the next three years.

Thielen Likely Offered a 2nd Round Tender
According to Chris Tomasson, Minnesota is likely offering RFA Adam Thielen a 2nd round tender at $2.8 million. This is what I expected as we entered the offseason, and if Thielen played on this deal in 2017 it would be a massive steal in terms of production vs cap hit.

However, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a WR needy team to consider offering Thielen a long term contract, which would require that team to then send their 2nd round pick to Minnesota. No team would’ve matched a 1st round tender, and the price difference between a 1st round tender and a 2nd round tender is only about $1 million. It almost seems a bit like bait for Minnesota, and it could be a no lose situation for the Vikings. A 2nd round pick to improve possibly the worst offensive line in the NFL, or to get a starting running back would be very tempting for Minnesota when faced with paying Adam Thielen $6-8 million after one year of good production. The market for Thielen will be interesting to say the least, but you can’t go wrong letting him head into training camp on a $2.8 million deal or getting a 2nd round pick in return for him.

Sharrif Floyd Likely to Stay
As the deadline approaches it appears more and more likely that Shariff Floyd will play in 2017 for Minnesota under his 5th year team option that pays him $6.8 million and becomes fully guaranteed on March 9th. This was first reported by Matt Vensel in this tweet and has some potential ramifications for Minnesota, mostly in terms of salary cap. Outside of that, the conversation is basically this: Can Shariff Floyd stay healthy all year? If so, he may be a bargain at that number and may see an extension next offseason. If not, Minnesota will see a great opportunity cost in terms of cap space spent that could have gone to the largest holes on Minnesota’s roster, which are mainly on the offensive line.

Berger possibly retiring
Minnesota’s best returning offensive linemen, center Joe Berger, is not 100% sold on returning to the NFL next year, which should be absolutely terrifying for Vikings fans. Not only is Berger a great center, he can slide over to guard, increasing Minnesota’s flexibility for finding quality interior linemen in this draft. If Minnesota needs to fill two starting spots inside instead of just one, for a total of 4 spots on the entire offensive line, their flexibility is greatly reduced. Even if he doesn’t retire, it may be wise to take multiple interior linemen in this draft class to prepare for when he does, and as we know you can never have enough depth on your offensive line. Luckily the interior line free agent class and draft class look to be deep at these spots and filling them if need be should be significantly easier than offensive tackle.

What We Don’t Know
With all the clarity that we’ve gained, there are still things we don’t. Matt Kalil, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Captain Munnerlyn are all looking like they will hit free agency, but it is more unclear as to whether they leave or return. My money would be on all three leaving, but there’s simply no way to know and no definitive reports are out there regarding their futures. We also don’t know whether or not Terrance Newman will retire. Newman was an elite corner despite being the oldest one in the NFL, and his return would be a welcome sight for a Vikings secondary that could be losing a starter in Munnerlyn.

We also don’t know how much Brian Robison will make this year. His deal is likely to be restructured as he has been passed on the depth chart by Danielle Hunter, but the question of how much of a discount is still to be seen. If no deal can be reached, Robison could be cut for just $1 million in dead money.

Salary Cap Space
According to OvertheCap.com Minnesota currently stands at almost $38 million in cap space. This is good for the 14th most cap space in the NFL. Assuming Thielen’s cap hit is $2.8 million and Minnesota pays its rookies the $5 million Overthecap estimates on rookie contracts, that gives the Vikings $30 million to play with in free agency. Which brings us to the final and most important piece of the puzzle until the NFL draft.

Free Agent Targets
The Vikings absolutely need to fill at least two spots with premium free agents if they want to compete for an NFC North Title and more in 2017. The undisputed #1 target, and relative pipedream, must be Andrew Whitworth. One of the top 5 left tackles in the NFL year in and year out, he is an unrestricted free agent and has seemingly decided to test the market before making any decisions on returning to Cincinnati. The market for the 6’7″, 35 year old lineman will be lucrative because Whitworth is really the only high quality left tackle option out there. It’s unlikely any 2nd round lineman will be ready to start in the NFL at left tackle and it’s unlikely any other left tackle in the market will be able to be anything more than an average player to plug the enormous hole the Vikings have there. The Vikings have the playoff ready roster and the cap the space to make a real run for him if he is serious about considering leaving Cincinnati. It may be a long shot, but if they can pull it off the payoff for getting an elite left tackle for 2 or 3 years that allows them to groom a younger lineman to replace him is as big as it gets.

At right tackle, the #2 overall target for Minnesota has to be Ricky Wagner formerly of the Baltimore Ravens. Wagner excels in pass blocking and is an average run blocker, but is the best available at not just right tackle but the entire tackle market after Whitworth. While Whitworth may fetch upwards of $12 million per year, Wagner will be a little cheaper, but could easily be over the $10 million mark. Again, the likelihood of finding a starting RT in the year’s draft class starting in the 2nd round are not great and filling this need in free agency looks like the way to go for Minnesota.

At tackle, some other names to watch are Russell Okung, Sebastian Vollmer, and Riley Reiff (in that order). Okung is healthier and much younger than Vollmer, while Vollmer has a better history of play. That play was multiple years ago, however, and Vollmer has spent most of the past two years injured before the Patriots released him in favor of a younger prospect. Reiff would be about the worst Minnesota could do outside bringing back Matt Kalil, but there are worse fallbacks in the world. All 3 of these linemen would be cheap enough to facilitate Minnesota spending big on their 3rd biggest hole on the offensive line, the RG spot.

As opposed to the tackle market in both the draft and free agency, the guard market is alive and well. Minnesota has a plethora of options in all phases of the market. A cheap rookie in the 2nd round could contribute as a starter at this spot, but if Minnesota can’t fill both tackle spots in free agency an elite guard could help the team tremendously. Names at the top end of the market are Kevin Zeitler, TJ Lang, Larry Warford, and Ronald Leary. Plenty of mid-tier options are also available in the unlikely scenario that Minnesota does hit on both tackle spots and needs a more affordable option. This position is dependent on what Minnesota does at tackle, and there is a lot of flexibility and uncertainty because of that. If I were a betting man, I’d predict that Minnesota misses on one tackle spot and ends up signing a premium guard to a long-term contract. An early round draft pick and a bargain free agent would then have to compete for the starting spot at left tackle.

As for the rest of the team, I do not expect any big splashes in free agency. Offensive line depth and competition for mid-tier free agents will come from the draft along with a running back to replace Adrian Peterson. Minnesota will also need to replace Chad Greenway one way or the other, which shouldn’t be too expensive or difficult. Anderson Sendejo should be the starter beside Harrison Smith at safety and while Munnerlyn leaving would mean Mackensie Alexander is forced into a starting role, but that is what you have to expect when you take a player in the 2nd round.

Predictions
Minnesota misses out on Whitworth and ends up signing Russell Okung or a similar player to a deal worth $7-8 million per year. Ricky Wagner packs his bags and heads west to Minnesota on a long term $10 million per year deal that resets the right tackle market. Minnesota then follows that up with a lower cost guard for $4 to $5 million per year and drafts a rookie to compete for that starting spot along with two other linemen in the 2017 draft to develop behind their free agent additions. Patterson, Peterson, Munnerlyn, and Kalil all sign elsewhere and the extra $7 million the Vikings spend on filling out the roster. Terrance Newman returns on a 1 year deal and Adam Thielen gets a contract extension this summer.

This week will not only dictate the talent on the offensive line next year but what Minnesota does in the draft as well. Immediate impact from offensive linemen in the 2nd round or later is rare in the NFL, so it is imperative that they are as aggressive as possible in filling these gaps in free agency. Rick Spielman has said as much and with the Super Bowl coming to Minneapolis next February, I expect the largest commitment to free agents for this franchise in its history in an effort to at least compete for a playoff berth and a chance to take the next step as a football team that so many were expecting in 2016 before injuries caught up to them after their Week 6 bye.

Stephen Moldovan 8 Articles
Staff Writer

Sac City, Iowa, is home to the world’s largest popcorn ball, the world's best named liquor store and is the birthplace of Moldy (like the bread, he grows on you). Moldy is an Iowa State graduate, lifelong Cyclones and Vikings fan, Cavs fan since he was eleven and Twins fan for three to five innings per year. His other hobbies and interests include tailgating the student lot tailgate line at Jack Trice, The Office, golfing poorly, and making shallow statistical sports observations by just googling a bunch. He enjoys learning things that might be against general perception or may be counter intuitive and as of (current date) he has yet to lose an argument on Twitter.

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