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Entering the NFL Scouting Combine, the Vikings still have important decisions to make. Daniel House takes an outside the box look at one possible free agency scenario. Which NFL team laid out a blueprint for Minnesota?
The Vikings enter this offseason with a very similar goal. Dating back to 2015, Minnesota has searched for missing pieces to its offensive line. The front office consistently invests draft and free agency resources into every position on the unit. Now, in 2020, the Vikings’ personnel staff may face its biggest challenge yet.
The main obstacle is overcoming 2020 salary cap constraints. Last week, according to ESPN's Courtney Cronin, defensive end Everson Griffen voided his contract, which freed up $13.9 million. Currently, Minnesota is just $1.38 million under the 2020 salary cap, according to Over the Cap. In the past, the Vikings' front office had enough financial resources to make at least one or two large free agent signings. When considering cap constraints and team needs, many difficult roster decisions are looming.
After evaluating last season, it’s clear the team must continue working toward a solution at left guard. During his first full season on the left side, Pat Elflein was very inconsistent. In 2019, Elflein allowed the third-most sacks (6) among all guards, according to Pro Football Focus. If at all possible, the Vikings should follow the Tennessee Titans’ past blueprint for offensive line development.
During each recent draft cycle, the Titans invested resources into the offensive line. In 2019, three past selections started for Tennessee — left tackle Taylor Lewan, right guard Nate Davis and right tackle Jack Conklin. In 2016, the team signed Ben Jones as the veteran centerpiece of its offensive line. Entering last season, the Titans added one final resource by signing Rodger Saffold, the top 2019 free agent guard. This acquisition took the unit to another level.
As a result, the Titans finished No. 4 in adjusted line yards (4.66), according to Football Outsiders. In pass protection, Tennessee posted a 63 percent team Pass Block Win Rate, which ranked fourth among all NFL offensive line groups, according to ESPN. The Titans’ brand of football closely mirrors the Vikings' overall identity. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith built his system around an outside zone rushing attack, play-action and quick passing.
In addition, the Vikings spent recent draft picks on right tackle Brian O’Neill and center Garrett Bradbury. Bradbury was thrown into the fire during his rookie season and should take a sizable step forward in 2020. During his second season, O’Neill quietly became one of the most reliable right tackles in football. Last offseason, Minnesota also signed right guard Josh Kline, who put together a solid 2019 campaign. If Riley Reiff returns at a discounted rate, there is only one position left to fill. Like the Titans in 2019, the final piece to the “offensive line puzzle” could be right in front of us.
How do we get there?
Head coach Mike Zimmer may need to part ways with veteran leaders on defense. By releasing defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings would have around $20 million in available cap space, according to Spotrac. Both Rhodes and Joseph are aging players who slowly declined over the course of two seasons.
While creating space, the front office needs to allocate roughly $3 million to draft picks. When evaluating this scenario, $20 million in projected cap space is trimmed to $17 million.
The Vikings can also move $8.8 million by releasing left tackle Riley Reiff. However, he may consider restructuring his contract. If he cuts his cap hit by converting base salary to roster bonus, Minnesota could create another $5 or $6 million. The team can also generate additional 2020 cap space by extending quarterback Kirk Cousins. In this scenario, I’m assuming the franchise will allow him to play out the final year of his deal. After making key roster decisions, we have roughly $22 million to work with in free agency. As Bill Barnwell noted, the Vikings could possibly gain roughly $6-8 million if they decide to extend Cousins. Safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Danielle Hunter may also be approached about converting base salary into roster bonus.
With all of this in mind, the Vikings must determine which current free agents are going to be retained. Safety Anthony Harris may command more than $13 million per year on the open market. Harris posted six regular season interceptions in 2019, which tied for first among NFL defensive backs. Does the team value Harris’ elite coverage skills enough to throw a large contract offer his way? In this scenario, I wanted to explore all of the options. The Vikings’ front office may decide to let Harris explore free agency. If they do, complete attention and financial resources will shift to the offensive line. While following this approach, the Vikings would likely have enough available space to retain cornerback Mackensie Alexander. If Minnesota wants to use this scenario, it could select a safety in the NFL Draft. Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. and Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger are two possible candidates in the top-58.
The Vikings would invest Harris’ allocated cash into the offensive line. This year, an incredible scheme fit is hitting the open market and Minnesota’s front office needs to take advantage. New England Patriots left guard Joe Thuney is one of the most reliable interior offensive linemen in the league. Thuney allowed just one sack and didn’t commit a single penalty in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. More importantly, his athletic profile closely mirrors the type of player this coaching staff values. Thuney’s athletic testing ranked in the top-tier among athletes at his position. He ran a 4.95 40-yard dash, which falls in the 98th percentile of guard prospects, according to MockDraftable.
When watching Thuney’s film, you notice all of his lateral quickness and agility. He gets to the second level and has shown the ability to consistently reach block defensive tackles. In a zone scheme, Thuney would have the athleticism and technique to thrive in space. I’ve also always been very impressed with his pass protection skills. While blocking 1-on-1, he is reliable and rarely allows pressure. There were many instances where he covered extensive ground to block screens, too. He checks all of the boxes and is a perfect fit for the Vikings’ offensive line.
I don’t think there’s a better free agent fit for the #Vikings than LG Joe Thuney. He is so athletic (98th percentile in 40) and consistently covers ground to block screens.— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) February 24, 2020
Thuney would thrive in a zone scheme and is equally impressive blocking 1-on-1 in pass protection. pic.twitter.com/09i7DKD7Kf
The biggest question will be whether Minnesota can afford him. Thuney’s asking price will explode and the Vikings could lose a bidding war. Thuney may command more than $12 or $13 million per season, which is near the top of Minnesota’s price range. Based upon the team’s cap structure, there is probably only room for one “big ticket” signing.
In this scenario, the team would likely need to part ways with safety Anthony Harris. Even when factoring in the signing of Thuney, veteran cap decisions and restructures may allow the Vikings to retain cornerback Mackensie Alexander, too. By following this approach, Minnesota is addressing the offensive line and maintaining important continuity at cornerback. If Cousins is extended, the extra cap space may allow the Vikings to get creative and make two larger signings. Nonetheless, this additional money could end up going to running back Dalvin Cook, who is ready for an extension.
There's no doubt Harris is an important part of the Vikings’ defense and creates more scheme flexibility for Mike Zimmer. However, Minnesota’s front office must determine which players and positions are most valuable in the future.
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