So, after 2 days of free agency many fans are disappointed (I surprised myself by not being included) that the Vikings didn’t make a bigger splash in free agency. We re-signed a couple of our own, and grabbed one of the best TE prospects in John Carlson. In other words, it wasn’t a very exciting opening for the Vikings in free agency. Awhile back, I thought we’d make a move for one marquee player, like a WR or a CB in free agency, because those are major positions of need that I thought we’d need to address along with draft picks. But the more I got into it and crunched some potential salary cap numbers, the more I realized signing a guy like Vincent Jackson or Cortland Finnegan isn’t a smart move for us right now. We are in a rebuilding mode with the roster, which means we aren’t going to be competitive in 2012. A full rebuild of the roster will take several years of good drafting and a few key free agent signings several years down the road. On top of that, the majority of our holes are with depth spots on the roster, rather than starters. Of the 20 roster spots we need to fill (due to free agents, cuts or retirements), only 7-8 are starting spots. Furthermore, teams build rosters through the draft, not through free agency. Signing a player (either through the draft or free agency) is a lot like buying a lottery ticket. And in that respect, the draft picks carry a lot less risk and investment, and therefore are the better deal when a team needs to collect a lot of them (like we do). Check out the long analysis after the jump.
So, with that in mind, I wanted to examine our current roster a little closer. It’s common knowledge that we “have a lot of holes”. But, I really don’t think it’s as bad as people make it out to be. I’m only going to examine the three biggest needs of our team with this post: Offensive Line, Wide Receivers and Defensive Backs. One could argue we have a need at Linebacker and Defensive Line, but I don’t think it’s so great that we can’t fill those in with mid-to-late round draft picks, or by re-signing some of our own free agents, so those two positions won't be addressed. QB, RB, TE are all in good shape.
LT: We will almost certainly address this through the draft. Whether it’s Kalil, or a trade down for more picks and Reiff/Martin, this will get addressed via the draft (at least, it should). As a last resort there are some older, stop-gap options in free agency that we could sign as an emergency fall-back option should we decide on another option via the draft.
LG: Charlie Johnson will almost surely move over a spot to guard, and should be only a mild drop-off from 2011 Hutchinson. He’ll bridge us through the rebuild until we can find a better replacement in a few years.
C: John Sullivan is a good, young center that will anchor the line through the rebuild and beyond.
RG: We have several options on the roster right now: Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger. Both showed potential last year, and I expect a training camp battle with Fusco winning out as a starter (and potentially a solid anchor through the rebuild and beyond).
RT: Phil Loadholt is still a starter, but if he regresses further, we could be looking at replacing him next year. If he steps up in 2012 (and I hope he does) he could earn himself a new contract extension.
Backups: DeMarcus Love, Chris DeGeare, and Patrick Brown will be back and are all young developmental prospects. We also have some camp bodies already in Butch Lewis and Jose Valdez, and we could always resign veteran Scott Kooistra pending his return from injury. I expect us to draft a center and a guard for depth in the draft. We’ll likely pick up some undrafted free agents for camp bodies too.
Analysis: While I was all aboard the Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs train, when I take a step back and look at the line, we really only need one position to fix a lot of the issues: Left Tackle. Just doing that will make this line better than it was last year.
#1: We definitely lack a clear #1 guy, but the draft is deep at WR. I expect us to sign a WR in the 2nd or 3rd round (maybe even first depending on trades), and ideally the guy can be plugged in as a starter right away. Guys like Greg Childs, Brian Quick and Nick Toon in the 2nd or 3rd all have the size and potential to be #1 guys.
#2: Michael Jenkins showed some developing chemistry with Ponder before he went down with an injury. Hopefully he can stay on the field, because he’s a solid possession receiver that will bridge us through the rebuild. We’ll have to address this position again in the near future. Maybe a guy like Marvin McNutt in the 4th or 5th round could be groomed as a Jenkins replacement in a few years?
#3: Percy Harvin is a beast in the slot, enough said. He’s a building block for the future.
#4: We have lots of options here from Stephen Burton to Emmanuel Arceneaux. We could resign Aromashodu as well. I expect a late round draft pick, or even some 3rd Tier free agents to compete for this spot.
Analysis: We really need a true #1 receiver, and I expect the Vikings to address this need early in the draft. They could have gone with free agency here, but the need to replace Jenkins in a few years makes signing yet another free agent WR not a smart move, as we'd likely have to replace them both at the same time. We need to fill this in the draft and stay young.
CB: I think a lot can be inferred about Chris Cook after the lack of activity in free agency. It would appear the coaching staff is counting on having him as a starter. I’m not sure what the plans are for who will line up opposite him, but we’ve got Antoine Winfield, Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton. Of the bunch, none seems like an every game starter on the outside, so we will likely address this position via the draft with a 1st or 2nd round pick (depending on if we trade down or draft Kalil). Morris Claiborne or Dre Kirkpatrick in the 1st would likely be instant starters opposite Chris Cook, and even 2nd round guys like Stephen Gilmore and Jenoris Jenkins would likely be potential starters too. We could look at some lower tier free agents for depth as well.
S: This is a trickier situation. We have 3 safeties on the roster: Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Eric Frampton. Of those three, Sanford was a sometimes starter last year who could potentially start for us full time in 2012, and Raymond showed some flashes in limited action last year and could develop into a starter this off-season. Frampton is a special teams ace and backup. But I would bet we address this position in the draft with some mid-round picks, and we can stock some depth with 3rd Tier free agents, and undrafted free agents. We already have a camp body in Andrew Sendejo.
Analysis: We could potentially roll with Cook and Winfield at CB, or Cook and a Rookie, or some combination of the rookie/Winfield/Allen in a rotation opposite Cook. Bottom line: CB is addressed via the draft. Safety on the other hand, will be a difficult need to fill. There just weren't a lot of options out there in free agency, and the draft class is weak this year. This may be a position that is overlooked this year and addressed next year. I could see us bringing back Abdullah for another year out of necessity. Hopefully next year's market for safety is better.
If we had tried to sign elite free agents on days 1 and 2 of free agency to plug these three holes, we would have spent virtually all of our remaining budget, leaving us with very little to pay draft picks and bring in camp bodies. And doing so would have added just a few mid-range, older players, while at the same time leaving us with the exact same depth issues we have now. We wouldn’t have solved any of our problems. Arguably we would have been only marginally more competitive, and our budget would have been virtually exhausted and tied up in a select few players who are no guarantee anyway. Rather than taking a risk on expensive free agents who are short-term fixes, we’re better off taking our chances with a plethora of younger and cheaper players to build the roster.
As you can see above, we can still fill our most pressing needs with high round draft picks, while also building for the future by avoiding any big splashes in free agency. I know we all had our wishlists, and would have liked to have seen at least one big, splashy free agent signing. In a way, John Carlson is it. We are in full rebuilding mode, and we all need to be patient as we watch our roster get younger right before our eyes. With youth, comes inexperience, and learning curves. But, in the long run, I believe it will pay off. Here are four quick draft scenarios for our first three picks to address the needs above:
Scenario 1: No Trades
Round 1: Matt Kalil LT
Round 2: Stephen Gilmore or Jenoris Jenkins CB
Round 3: Nick Toon or Greg Childs WR
Scenario 2: Trade Down in 1st round for extra 2nd rounder
Round 1: Riley Reiff LT
Round 2: Stephen Gilmore or Jenoris Jenkins CB
Round 2: Stephen Hill or Alshon Jeffrey WR
Scenario 3: Two trades: Down in the 1st for an extra second, then use the extra second to move back up in the 1st
Round 1: Morris Claiborne CB
Round 1: Jonathan Martin LT
Round 3: Nick Toon or Greg Childs WR
Scenario 4: Same trades as 3a, plus giving up 3rd rounder to move back up in the 2nd (3 total trades)
Round 1: Justin Blackmon WR
Round 1: Dre Kirkpatrick CB
Round 2: Zebrie Sanders LT
That leaves us with at least 7 more picks in the rest of the draft to address LB, DT, and depth at every other position. It also saves us a ton of money and cap space and begins the rebuild for a solid foundation. At this point, I'd rather get excited about these prospects than any of the free agents that were available today and yesterday.