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The off-season is hitting stride and that means front office professionals across the league are crafting their NFL Draft and free agency strategies. Daniel House analyzes the Vikings' roster and provides his preliminary offseason plan.
Updated: February 27th, 2016 11:25pm
Updated: February 27th, 2016 11:25pm
By: Daniel House
With the NFL Draft right around the corner and the NFL Scouting Combine in full swing, the Vikings are starting to narrow their prospects lists and free agent strategies. As one reflects upon the 2015 season, a few glaring areas stand out. First, is the offensive line. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sacked a sixth-most 2.8 times per game in 2015. That alone had an enormous impact on the Vikings' lack of offensive success. Since the last-second playoff loss to Seattle, head coach Mike Zimmer has made it known this needs to be an area of emphasis this offseason. The Vikings offense threw the fewest total passes and notched the second-lowest amount of total completions. Not to mention, they averaged the 14th lowest points per game total in the league. Much of the offensive structure was built around the legs of Adrian Peterson. In order to take the next step as a unit, this team needs to find a way to accumulate passing yards and protect the quarterback. If an offensive balance can be found, the entire team becomes less predictable.
By: Daniel House
Additionally, the passing game lacked an explosive vertical threat. Teddy Bridgewater needs to have a receiver who can make contested catches in traffic. The free agency class is weak in this area, but the draft leaves a few early round options worth evaluating. Bridgewater needs to take the next step in 2016 and moving inside for half of his total contests will hopefully benefit his growth. Not to mention, adding a big target to pair with a player like Stefon Diggs will aid this process. With a re-tooled offensive line and a few playmakers, the Vikings can find a new offensive identity as they move into U.S. Bank Stadium.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings made a huge amount of progress. The most encouraging aspect of this group is their youth. Young rookies such as Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and Trae Waynes, leave the coaches with plenty of options for the future. The one position the Vikings haven't addressed is the safety spot next to Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo are free agents and it seems unlikely they will return. With that being said, the coaches will need to add a replacement through free agency or the draft. At the combine, Mike Zimmer noted that Harrison Smith could do more things in the defensive system if an improvement was made next to him. It seems the free agent market will be the most logical place to address this area. Especially considering the draft class is so deep at other positions.
Last year, the Vikings built their pass rush and linebacker corps, but the draft has a plentiful amount of solid prospects in these position groups. Chad Greenway is a free agent and likely will return for one more season, but finding a linebacker to replace him is ideal. Edmond Robinson could be the guy to fill this mold, but adding another player in the mid-round of the draft isn't a bad idea. What's more, the defensive line class is one of the best to reach the NFL in recent seasons. Adding an athletic rusher in the interior would make sense. When Linval Joseph went down, the coaches had limited options to replace him. Shamar Stephen missed the duration of the 2015 season, but the value of the defensive line class is too irresistible. As the defensive lineman go through drills at the combine this weekend, a few prospects should jump out as the front office uses analytics to find talent.
Finally, it might be worth snatching a cornerback in this draft. Terence Newman is a free agent, but his success should warrant another extension. Trae Waynes will be entering his second season and will see a maximized role in the system. Additionally, Jabari Price will be healthy as a rotational cornerback. Captain Munnerlyn is in the final year of his deal and adding another developmental cornerback would be in the team's best interest. In a passing league, a squad can never have enough defensive backs and a mid-round pick wouldn't be a bad idea as a front office member projects for the future.
So where should the Vikings bolster some of these areas? It starts when free agency opens on March 9th and the NFL Draft takes place on April 28th. Notoriously, General Manager Rick Spielman isn't willing to spend high dollar values in free agency, but he is willing to add young talent that can provide longevity for the future. Past signings like Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn further reaffirm this approach. From a drafting standpoint, the Vikings hold the 23rd selection in the first round. At that pick, they will have plenty of ways they can improve their roster. Whether it's wide receiver, defensive tackle, or offensive line, the front office will draft for value, with need in mind.
Here is the preliminary way I would start to structure the roster:
Current cap space: $26,331,555
Vikings free agents - bold means "retain", the strikethrough means "hit the market":
RB Matt Asiata
TE Rhett Ellison
G Mike Harris
DE Justin Trattou
LB Chad Greenway
LB Jason Trusnik
CB Terence Newman
CB Marcus Sherels
Mike Wallace- $11,500,000
Shaun Hill- $3,250,000
Phil Loadholt: cuts his cap hit to $4,500,000
After casualties and restructures: $44,331,555
- Of course, part of this cap space will need to be allocated for the free agent moves above and draft picks, but this is the number without those factored into the equation.
The Vikings could really save some money by letting Matt Kalil hit the market. In fact, that would leave them with over $55 million in total cap space. However, I believe Mike Zimmer will give new offensive line coach Tony Sparano some time to work with Kalil. A new aggressive and abrasive approach might be all that is necessary to fix this problem. I think enhanced coaching could be the most important way the Vikings can improve their offensive line as a unit.
Mike Wallace won't be back and it makes the most sense for both parties. Additionally, KSTP's Darren Wolfson has been reporting that the Vikings want to keep Phil Loadholt. I think that comes through a restructure that allows the team to add a top-tier offensive guard in free agency. The only worthwhile free agents that are completely necessary to retain are Chad Greenway, Mike Harris, Rhett Ellison, and Terence Newman. They will all contribute, but the others I listed will be signed to low-stake deals to compete in training camp. Harris provides great offensive line depth and performed extremely well on the right side this year.
Regarding Shaun Hill, I don't see any reason to pay him the current salary he is receiving. Taylor Heinicke and a late-round draft pick can provide the flexibility necessary at the backup quarterback position.
The Overall Draft/Free Agency Plan:
It's unknown where John Sullivan will be at as he returns from back surgery, but all indications point to his return. Through my eyes, free agent guard Kelechi Osemele is the solution to patching the recent offensive line issues. He has primarily played left guard in his career, but played three games at left tackle last year. In fact, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh could see him continuing at the tackle position. With this signing, the Vikings, can retain Matt Kalil and play Osemele at guard. If things go astray, Osemele can slide over to left tackle and Mike Harris or Austin Shepherd can play inside. T.J. Clemmings performed well, but I feel his best asset is as depth until Phil Loadholt calls it quits. Personally, I'd move Fusco back to the right side with Loadholt and play Osemele on the left next to Kalil. Osemele was a second-round draft pick by Baltimore in 2012 and has been a starter since the day he was drafted. He's played in 51 games and hasn't missed any of them. He'll command a big contract, but in order to get these offensive line problems alleviated, it's completely necessary. In addition to this signing, the Vikings can draft another offensive lineman in the middle rounds to secure more depth.
The ideal Vikings Starting Offensive Line:
LT- Kalil, LG- Osemele, C- Sullivan, RG- Fusco, RT- Loadholt
Mike Wallace won't be back and the Vikings need to add a deep vertical threat that can make contested catches in traffic. The draft is the perfect area to address this position. Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell is the most impressive in this class, but he'll be selected long before the Vikings pick in the first round. My second slate of options would include Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas and TCU's Josh Doctson. In fact, I'd lean more towards Doctson. His scouting combine broad and vertical jumps were extremely impressive and he has the film to show his playmaking ability. Pairing him with Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright would add another element to the Vikings' offense. Not to mention, if Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson can figure things out this offseason, the wide receiver group could take a big step.
Finally, aside from taking advantage of the depth at the defensive line and linebacker positions later in the draft, one more free agent should be pursued. In KSTP's "Doogie's Dirt" Segment, Darren Wolfson indicated the Vikings had some interest in Bengals safety George Iloka. He's played in Mike Zimmer's system before and understands what's necessary to fit into the scheme. Iloka is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound safety that has the length and range to make plays in the backend. He had 47 tackles along with interception in 2015. Spotrac has his estimated salary at 4 years, $22,593,361, which could work within the Vikings budget. The Vikings need to add a player that can complement Harrison Smith and Illoka has familiarity with the scheme, along with the skill-set necessary to upgrade the Vikings' defense.
This plan will change before the draft approaches, but it's a way to start analyzing and thinking about how the Vikings can attack free agency and the draft. By adding Osemele and Iloka, two major positional needs are addressed. Additionally, clearing cap space and adding a vertical pass catcher early in the draft, leave the front office members with more flexibility to draft skilled defensive players for value later in the draft.
No matter what, the process of upgrading this roster must begin by bolstering wide receiver, offensive line, and safety through free agency and the draft.