Now that I’ve had some time to digest and research draft rankings and draft prospects, I’m going to take Mark’s lead and offer up my own off-season plan. He laid out the contract issues pretty clearly in his v1.0 article, and I’m using the numbers from that for this plan. I’m going to start with a quick analysis of each position, to gauge team needs and potential future plans, then work through a free agency plan, and finally offer up a quick and dirty mock draft. At the end, look for my “Day 1 Roster.” I will whole-heartedly admit that I’m no Rick Spielman, and this is just one fan’s take on the whole thing. I don’t think I could do a better job than the Vikings front office, but this is a fun exercise in arm-chair GM’ing. Call me a wannabe I guess!
QB: Ponder earned himself the starting nod with his rebound to finish the year. But, he’s going to need to show improvement, and injury questions still remain. We won’t know if he’s the QBotF until after the 2013 season, and maybe not even until after the 2014 season. Joe Webb did nothing to silence his critics, and if anything, he gave them more ammo in his one appearance this year. Bethel-Thompson is still a major unknown. With a young and still growing starter, and lots of question marks behind him, we could stand to improve the depth at the QB position. We appear to have our starter for at least the next 1-2 years, but it’s possible we may need to rethink the long-term future of the QB position in MN.
RB: Cyborg. Toby Smash. Matt Asiata. What more could we want? Well, maybe bring in a shifty, change-of-pace back to spice up the training camp competition, but we all said the same thing last year, and that didn’t happen. So, nothing major needs to be done here, and we’re set for the next 3-5 years.
WR: So...what more can be said? Even if we offer Percy Harvin a contract extension and he stays with the Vikings, we still need to, essentially blow up this unit and start over. I’d keep Jarius Wright in the long term plan as well. If Harvin is traded, or goes into contract hold-out mode, this could get really ugly, really fast. This is a major need heading into 2013 and beyond.
TE/FB: Rudolph had his breakout year closing the season with the 2nd most receptions and receiving yards on the team, behind Percy Harvin. John Carlson didn’t live up to his free agent contract, but Jerome Felton outplayed his by a longshot. We have good depth with Rhett Ellison as well. This unit looks excellent, although John Carlson will need to step it up in 2013 or he’ll be out of a job.
OL: In the run game there’s almost no better unit than ours as we fielded the 2nd best rushing offense in the league. Sullivan, Kalil and Loadholt anchor the line. We could use some improvement at the guard spot, and general depth behind the starters, but this unit is in pretty good shape for the next 3-5 years with all starters 28 years old or younger. Believe it or not, Pro Football Focus graded our O-Line better last year (7th best) than this year (9th best). This year we were 4th best in not getting penalties and had the 7th best run blocking line. Our pass blocking still needs improvement as we were only ranked 14th in that area. But this is still a very good offensive line, and I don’t see a need for any major changes, aside from more depth and perhaps a little additional competition at guard.
DE: We have a situation on our hands as next year our top 3 DE all become free agents at the same time. We will likely address some of these contracts this off-season however. But our starters are solid, and our depth is too. There’s no reason to change personnel at DE, but we’ll have to address contracts sooner or later.
DT: Kevin Williams isn’t getting any younger, but is still playing at an above average level. Fred Evans and Letroy Guion did ok as rotational starters, but neither was elite. Christian Ballard needs to continue making progress. This unit will need a major overhaul within the next 1-3 years.
LB: Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson have likely hit their ceilings and that is league average or worse. Chad Greenway is playing at an All-Pro level though. Our depth behind these three is shaky at best, with Audie Cole and Marvin Mitchell showing up on special teams frequently. With Brinkley, Henderson and Mitchell being free agents, this is a position of pretty severe need this off-season, and for the foreseeable future.
CB: We have two solid starters (at least for 1 more year) in Cook and Winfield. Robinson and Jefferson showed a lot of potential in 2012, and hopefully both continue to make progress. After that, Burton is an unknown and Sherels is primarily a special teamer. I’m not certain that Robinson or Jefferson will be the next Winfield, but either way, we’ll need to plan for Winfield’s departure soon. Not including Winfield, our oldest CB is 25, so we’re setup pretty well for the future, assuming Robinson or Jefferson can progress and take over starting duties from Winfield. But you can never have too many DBs.
S: Smith and Sanford/Raymond make for a great starting duo. Sendejo and Blanton are decent special teamers, but don’t offer much as backups. This unit is also very young, but could use improved depth.
K: Blair Walsh. Done.
P: Chris Kluwe is league average, but maybe we’re overpaying? Tough call.
LS: Loeffler is solid, but I was surprised to learn that he’ll be 32 when the 2013 season begins.
For me, the two biggest areas of need are pretty clearly WR and LB. With the impending free agents, and lack of talent at those two positions, we’ll need to address this area of the roster pretty heavily in the off-season. After that, I would rate DT and CB as the next two most pressing needs, followed closely by QB depth and O-Line depth. So, with that in mind, here is how I would attack the off-season.
Going with Mark’s figures, we only have about $12.3 Million in cap space for free agents, contract extensions and our rookies. So, we need to take care of our own free agents first, and I would sign the following unrestricted free agents before the market opens.
OT Phil Loadholt: Of all the free agents on the Vikings, this is our most pressing need. Loadholt continued his upward trend in 2012, and IMO played himself into a new contract. He’s one of the better run-blocking RT in the NFL, and has improved in pass blocking. He’s not perfect, but there are a lot of teams that would love to have Loadholt on their line, and we don’t have any other significant options to replace him. Peterson likes him, and they go back to their days at Oklahoma, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t resign him. I like the contract that Mark gave him and I’ll roll with those numbers: 6 year 27.5 mil deal with 11 mil guaranteed and a signing bonus of 7 mil.
FB Jerome Felton: Felton played very well, even though his only job all year was to block. It’s hard to justify a big contract for such a “bit role” player, but I would sign him anyway, and from the sound of it Felton is interested in getting a deal done to stay in MN too. Hopefully something like a 4-year $8 Million contract with $4 Million guaranteed would do it, even if that is a bit more than he’s worth.
OLB Erin Henderson: We’re kind of stuck at LB. We have three LB that are free agents this off-season, and two of them are starters. We can’t afford to let all of them walk, even if I’m not very impressed with any of them. Erin Henderson is arguably the best of the three, so in this plan he gets a new deal. We signed him to a cheap, 1-year “prove it” deal last year ($2 Million), and he arguably played no better than last year, but on the plus side didn’t play much worse either. I don’t think he’ll command a big salary, but he should be able to be signed to a low-end multi-year deal. So perhaps a 4-year, $9 Million contract with $2.5 Million guaranteed could get it done. It’s a little more than what he got this past season, but includes the coveted guaranteed dollars.
After that, I would let the rest of the unrestricted free agents hit the open market and let that determine contracts. I would be looking to re-sign the following players though: S Jamarca Sanford and OG Geoff Schwartz. The rest of our unrestricted free agents could be re-signed for the right price, but they are not a priority in this plan. So, guys like Jerome Simpson, Jasper Brinkley and Marvin Mitchell could end up being resigned, or maybe not, it would depend on other team’s offers and what the market would bear. The following players would not be resigned at all regardless of what the market holds: Devin Aromashodu and Joe Berger. As for the restricted and exclusive rights players, I think we should re-sign these guys: Troy Koprog, AJ Jefferson and Marcus Sherels, because they would all be pretty cheap.
Outside Free Agents
WR Brandon Gibson: This is a WR coming off his rookie contract with the Rams. He was drafted by the Eagles in the 6th round in 2009, but was traded to the Rams. He’s been steadily progressing ever since. He’s not going to be a #1 guy for the Vikings, and might not even be a starter, because he lacks elite deep speed. But, he is a solid and precise route-runner, with good size that can out-maneuver defenders with a good catch radius and soft hands to catch balls in traffic. Gibson has an excellent work ethic, and he caught 51 balls for 691 yards and 5 TDs this past season from Sam Bradford. He would be a great depth addition, that wouldn’t be too expensive. At the very least he has more upside and potential for production than Michael Jenkins and Stephen Burton. I think a 4-year, $10 Million contract with $6 Million guaranteed could get it done. I thought about Domenik Hixon, but the fact that he’s torn his ACL…twice…and was never a particularly productive WR to begin with, has me saying no, because of the health risk. I also don’t think we have the cap space to go after a guy like Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe or Mike Wallace AND sign everyone else we need to. So, I’ll take a solid, if unspectacular depth guy in Gibson that has the potential to be our #3 or #4 WR.
Now, I’m not certain where that leaves our cap numbers, but I’m thinking the signing of Loadholt, Felton, Henderson and Gibson would eat up a large portion of the available $12.3 Million space.
Other Free Agents/Contract Extensions
Lastly, I would extend Percy Harvin to avoid a contract hold-out, or trade request. It’s likely going to take a contract similar to what Mark offered up in his plan, which was a 5-year $52 Million deal with $23 Million guaranteed. Harvin’s extension, combined with all of the above doesn’t leave us with much cap space. So, the next step is to restructure our older veterans to free up enough space to get Harvin’s deal done. So, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams and Charlie Johnson will all be taking pay cuts. We’re also cutting a few players, like Michael Jenkins to free up some space. By reducing their cap numbers that will give us some breathing room to re-sign some of the other free agents we let test the market, or perhaps bring in other replacements from other teams. It also gives us some room to sign our rookies out of the draft. I don’t know enough about the salary cap, nor do I have the desire to get into the details of re-working their contracts and crunching all the numbers. But just know that this plan assumes that all these five contracts will be reworked to lower their cap hits.
Speaking of the draft, this is where it gets interesting. Assuming we sign or extend all the players above, that leaves us with a pretty glaring hole at the MLB and WR positions. We could still use depth and upgrades at DT, CB and QB. So, this is how I would attack the draft:
Round 1: WR Cordarelle Patterson, Tennessee
This pick is about size and speed. Patterson has both. While he has only played 1 year at the Division 1 level at Tennessee, he had a very good 1 year, and he compares to Demaryius Thomas in his skill set. He has the potential to be a bona-fide #1 WR in the NFL, and is the highest rated WR so far by NFL.com, ESPN and 2nd highest rated by CBS. There’s a chance he’s drafted before pick #23, but if he’s there, we should grab him. IMO, if we’re drafting a first round WR (and I think we should be), at this point in time, it’s between Patterson and Keenan Allen.
Round 2: LB Kevin Minter, LSU
There’s almost no way that Minter falls to our pick in the 2nd round, which means there’s a good chance we would have to trade up to get him. There are three high quality ILB in the draft this year: Manti Te’o, Alex Olgetree and Kevin Minter. Minter is probably the 3rd best of the group, which is why my fingers are crossed that he falls to us in the 2nd. He’s good enough to walk in and start day 1 over Jasper Brinkley. Like Patterson, he only has 1 year as a starter, but had a very successful year, and was named LSU’s MVP, on a team loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Round 3: DT Akeem Spence, Illinois
Spence was a 4-year starter for Illinois, and was one of the few bright spots on a bad team. He’s a stout run defender at 6’1” 305 lbs, and plays as a traditional 3-technique DT. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but can be a dominating force in the run defense. He may not be Pat Williams, but it’s a start.
Round 4 (from Detroit): CB Dwayne Gratz, Connecticut
Gratz is an experienced and sound CB from UConn, and plays the run very well. He’s not a flashy player, but has prototypical NFL size and strength, and makes for a good mid-round, developmental prospect.
Round 4: QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Has great arm strength and decent accuracy, and is a tall QB with a big NFL frame. He needs to work on ball placement, decision-making and getting past the first read, which are all correctable things with good coaching. Never-the-less, he was productive in a pass-happy offense after Sam Bradford left for the NFL, and with some good coaching and development, some say he compares to Jay Cutler.
Round 5: WR Aaron Mellette, Elon
He’s a small school guy from Elon, that compares to Brian Quick from last year’s draft. He’s not a real flashy player, but he’s consistent and reliable. He’s got big NFL size at 6’3” and 205 lbs, and runs a decent 40. For a 5th round pick, he should compete for a backup spot, and could take over our possession receiver role.
Round 7 (from Arizona): LB Cameron Lawrence, Mississippi State
At 6’2” and 233 lbs, he’ll need to bulk up his frame a bit at the NFL level, but he he’s had back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons for Mississippi State. He can get off of blocks well, and has great hands and strength to make tackles. He’s a little behind the curve mentally when it comes to diagnosing the plays, but he has enough athleticism to overcome miscues in coverage. With some coaching and experience at the next level, he could grow into a solid special teams player or backup.
Round 7: OG Blaize Foltz, TCU
Here is the prototypical late round pick: risk with high reward. Foltz torn his ACL back in 2010, and has been working to get back to form. He’s a weight room freak with incredible strength. He’s got prototypical size for an NFL guard at 6’3” and 329 lbs, and could be a great depth addition to our already strong O-Line.
Day 1 Roster
QB: Ponder – Jones – Webb
RB: Peterson – Gerhart – Asiata
WR: Harvin – Patterson – Gibson – Wright – Mellette – Childs
TE: Rudolph – Carlson – Ellison
OL: Kalil – Johnson – Sullivan – Fusco – Loadholt – Schwartz – Love – Kropog – Foltz
DE: Allen – Robison – Griffen – Reed
DT: Williams – Spence – Ballard – Guion
LB: Greenway – Minter – Henderson – McKenzie – Cole – Lawrence – Dean
CB: Winfield – Cook – Robinson – Jefferson – Gratz – Sherels
S: Smith – Raymond – Sanford - Blanton
PK: Blair Walsh
P: Chris Kluwe
LS: Cullen Loeffler