Week 16 Picks And Preview: Free To Go

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Daily Norseman checks on the pending free agents currently on the Vikings roster before previewing their upcoming game against the Bengals.

After last week's upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles, I sent out the following tweet:

Sad but true. The agonizing last-minute losses weren't any fun but they certainly kept us riveted. (The Vikings would be 9-5 if games were 59 minutes long--a stat I have been tweeting out for months, yet Rich Eisen decided to quote somebody else when he retweeted it last week!) The merry-go-round at quarterback has been laughable but it certainly gave fans something to talk about. (Even if Matt Cassel should have been the obvious choice weeks ago.) And the awful record has allowed us to discuss the draft in earnest since Halloween.

With two weeks left and the Vikings playing out the string at this point, I thought about combing through as many mock drafts as I could get my hands on for this week's preview. Then I realized three things: a) We're still almost five months away from the first pick being announced at Radio City Music Hall; b) Mark might get mad at me if I start intruding on his corner of scouting college football players this early; and c) I really don't feel like doing that much research yet.

So instead of focusing on who Minnesota might be adding to their team through the 2014 draft, I decided to take a look at who might be leaving the team in free agency next year. Normally that would take a lot of research too, but thankfully the folks at Spotrac have already done most of the legwork for me. Thanks to their handy list I can walk through each member of the Vikings with an expiring contract.

For those that may not be familiar with the different levels of NFL free agency, here's a quick crash course for the three abbreviations you'll see under the Status column:

  • UFA: Unrestricted Free Agent. A player with an expired contract and at least 4 years in the league. He can sign with any team without restrictions. If a team loses more UFAs than it signs, they will be awarded compensatory draft picks from the league. The value of the pick is determined by the difference of the contracts signed by the players lost and those acquired. If a team has signed an equal number or more UFAs than it has lost, no compensatory picks will be awarded.
  • RFA: Restricted Free Agent. A player with an expired contract and has fewer than four years in the league. He can sign an offer sheet with any other team, but his original team has seven days to match any offer he receives. If the original team does not match the offer, compensation will be awarded in the form of draft picks from the signing team. The round and quantity of picks are determined by the qualifying offer made by the player's original team. If a RFA is offered a minimum qualifying offer, the compensation is the equivalent of the round in which that player was originally selected. If that player was originally a rookie free agent, no compensation is awarded.
  • ERFA: Exclusive Rights Free Agent. A player with an expired contract and has three or fewer years in the league. His original team must make a contract offer or the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. No compensation is awarded for losing ERFAs.
Got it? Good. Let's start with a few guys I wrote about three weeks ago.

Name Position Status Age 2013 Cap Hit
Jared Allen DE UFA 31 $17,063,956
Kevin Williams DT UFA 33 $5,000,000
Toby Gerhart RB UFA 26 $1,013,150

As I wrote in my Week 13 preview, these popular veterans are all but gone next year. Minnesota has enough defensive line depth to lose the expensive contracts of Allen and Williams without falling off a cliff, and Gerhart will likely get picked up by a team that will give him more touches. If you want my full take on those three, click the link. Up next is a position that always sparks debate in these parts: quarterback.

Name Position Status Age 2013 Cap Hit
Matt Cassel QB UFA 31 $3,700,000
Josh Freeman QB UFA 25 $2,000,001

Of the three quarterbacks currently on the Vikings roster, Cassel is the one that has undoubtedly made the best case for the team to keep him around next year. Ideally his role in 2014 would be "very capable backup" or "starter until the rookie is ready" and ideally his salary would be at or below what he's getting paid this year. Of course not everything is ideal, but I hope Cassel is still in Minnesota next year. As for Freeman...has anything surrounding him made sense since he signed with the team? Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that the Vikings are burying Freeman on the bench to keep the price down on him in the offseason; I don't buy it. I didn't like the move in the first place so I won't miss Freeman in the least if he's elsewhere next season.

Up next we have a few intriguing members of the offense:

Name Position Status Age 2013 Cap Hit
Charlie Johnson G UFA 29 $3,850,000
Jerome Simpson WR UFA 27 $2,100,000
Joe Webb WR UFA 27 $653,129

I sincerely hope the Vikings have a new starting left guard next year. Johnson hasn't been terrible but there are certainly better interior linemen at that price. Johnson is the lowest rated member of the offensive line by Pro Football Focus this season and the Vikings should already be looking for his replacement.

The next two players are two of the most highly debated Vikings wide receivers in Vikings history. Simpson has shown flashes of greatness mixed with inconsistency on the field and boneheaded decisions off it. Yet for some reason I kinda want to see him around next year. I can't really justify it; I'm just a sucker for freakish athletes.

Webb has had quite the run with the Vikings. The backup QB turned spot starter turned cult hero turned playoff goat turned wide receiver turned special teamer has done a little of everything in his short NFL career. I was mildly surprised that he made the final 53 this season. Since he hasn't done much of note in 2013, I'd be even more surprised if he was with the team in 2014.

Now we turn to some big pieces on the defensive side of the ball:

Name Position Status Age 2013 Cap Hit
Fred Evans DT UFA 30 $1,750,000
Chris Cook CB UFA 26 $1,305,000
Desmond Bishop OLB, LB UFA 29 $850,000
Everson Griffen DE UFA 25 $765,000
Marcus Sherels CB RFA 26 $630,000
Marvin Mitchell OLB, LB UFA 29 $605,000

Griffen and Evans might be the two free agents I'm most passionate about re-signing. With Allen likely leaving, the Vikings must keep some depth in the only defensive group that was worth half a damn this year. Greg Bedard had an article last week that said if the Vikings let Griffen hit the open market there will be plenty of teams lined up for his services. The team has been working on an extension with him but statements like "wasn't in the ballpark" from Griffen have me a bit worried. Hopefully they can work something out before Griffen drives up his price too much. Evans has been outperforming Letroy Guion all season and would make a much better interior battery mate with Sharrif Floyd next year if Williams leaves.

Chris Cook: sorry, but I still have as many career interceptions as you and far fewer arrests. There's still potential there and I hope you can realize it with your new team. Desmond Bishop: sorry, but the gamble didn't pay off. You just can't stay healthy. Marvin Mitchell: sorry, but you just aren't an NFL starting linebacker.

I have a soft spot for Marcus Sherels because he's a Minnesota guy that always fights back no matter how many times he's counted out. Hopefully the Vikings give him an offer sheet to keep him around as a punt returner and backup corner.

Finally, we have...well, the rest of the free agents:

Name Position Status Age 2013 Cap Hit
Seth Olsen G UFA 28 $670,000
J'Marcus Webb RT, T UFA 25 $630,000
Joe Berger C UFA 31 $620,000
Larry Dean OLB, LB RFA 25 $555,000
Matt Asiata FB ERFA 26 $480,000
Levi Horn T UFA 27

Take a good look at that list. Now say it with me, nice and loud: "Meh." Not too much to get excited about there. These guys are mostly interchangeable cogs. The Vikings might keep a few of them around for experienced depth; they might not. Since we're well over 1500 words and I haven't even started previewing the Bengals game, I won't waste any more virtual ink on these guys. (Not even Asiata. Three TDs in one game is nice, but 30 carries for 51 yards isn't going to get you a big pay bump.)

So yeah, the game in Cincinnati on Sunday! The Vikings can play spoiler against another division leader! They have a definite starting quarterback that can actually make plays! They scored 48 points last week without Adrian Peterson and Gerhart, who are both coming back this week! Greg Jennings is finally doing Greg Jennings things! Jerome Simpson is out to make a splash against his old team! Cordarrelle Patterson has turned into a legitimate threat every time he touches the ball--teams are already avoiding kicking to him!

And yet there's no way that I'm going to pick the Vikings to win! For starters, the Bengals are 6-0 at home this year and only one of those games was decided by less than a touchdown. The average margin of victory in their last three home games: 25 points.

When the Bengals offense is "on", they can be lethal. However, they aren't always clicking because you're never quite sure which Andy Dalton will show up from game to game. One week he'll be throwing darts all over the field to A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, and Jermaine Gresham. (Note: Gresham might be out this week but Tyler Eifert is no slouch either.) The next week he'll be throwing like Christian Ponder. (OK I might have exaggerated a bit there for emphasis, but you get the point.) If Good Dalton shows up on Sunday, the moribund Vikings secondary stands no chance. If Bad Dalton rears his ugly head, things could get interesting. Of course the Vikings still have to worry about Giovani Bernard. The Bengals coaches seem to have finally realized that the dynamic rookie is light years better than BenJarvus Green-Ellis and are giving Gio more of the workload.

The Bengals defense shouldn't be this good. Not after losing their best defensive back (Leon Hall) and one of the best defensive tackles in football (Geno Atkins). Yet here they are, a top-10 unit in most defensive metrics. Don't expect a repeat of the aerial attack that Cassel put up against Philadelphia last week; yards will be hard to come by even if AP returns at full strength.

Are the Vikings capable of pulling off another upset? Sure. They are certainly playing a better brand of football in the second half of the season. As I stated earlier, they're actually entertaining to watch. But entertaining isn't going to cut it against a Cincinnati team that can take a huge step forward in locking up the AFC North with a win on Sunday.

Maybe "entertaining" and "successful" can actually go hand in hand next year for the Vikings with all the new faces after free agency.

Prediction: Bengals 31, Vikings 20

And now for the rest of my Week 16 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Dolphins over BILLS: It feels like I'm about 1-13 picking Miami games this season. (I checked; I'm actually 6-8.) I'll probably get it wrong again. Oh well. Let's get right to the Gratuitous Picture of the Week, which is never wrong!

Tempashley-jills-7122013-ashley--nfl_mezz_1280_1024_medium

"It's the Bills so there's no playoff hopes / But you can still ride down my slopes!" (image via prod.images.bills.clubs.nflcdn.com)

JETS over Browns: This is going to be one of those games where they show about four seconds of the highlights on Football Night In America on NBC Sunday night. You know the type: Dan Patrick will rattle off the score and quickly move on to another game that people actually give a crap about.

Cowboys over REDSKINS: Everyone knows that this result predestined: Dallas will win this game which will set up a do-or-die Week 17 game against Philadelphia for the division. And the Cowboys will lose that Week 17 game to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs, and everyone will blame Tony Romo regardless of how he plays.

Broncos over TEXANS: Both teams really want to hold onto their respective #1 spots. I don't think this game will change that.

Titans over JAGUARS: I almost picked Jacksonville until I looked at the spread: why is Tennessee favored by 5.5 points? They already lost to the Jags and they're only one game up in the standings. VEGAS KNOWS SOMETHING!

CHIEFS over Colts: Expect some pretty bland play calling in this one since they're probably going to play each other in Indianapolis in two weeks.

RAMS over Buccaneers: Since the Rams are involved, the game is going to be lopsided one way or the other. St. Louis has won or lost by double digits the past five weeks.

Saints over PANTHERS: I know the "Saints suck on the road" narrative that has been beaten to death (and proven) lately, but I think New Orleans makes one last stand for their division and a bye week.

LIONS over Giants: Congratulations Detroit! You are now proud members of the "How the hell did we lose that game to the Ravens?!" Club! Blair Walsh and Chad Greenway will show you to your seats.

SEAHAWKS over Cardinals: It's possible that the Seahawks' next flight will be to the Super Bowl. (Two home games remaining then likely two home playoff games.) That is, if they have enough non-suspended cornerbacks to field a team.

PACKERS over Steelers: Aaron Rodgers has the most obsessed-about bone since Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Even if he doesn't play I think Green Bay continues their improbable march to the playoffs (just watch--they're going to get in because of that stupid tie).

CHARGERS over Raiders: Are we sure that Philip Rivers is a real person and not a fictional character? Because the bolo tie and snakeskin boots he wore on the NFL Network set last week should never be worn by an actual human being.

Patriots over RAVENS: Shouldn't these two teams just skip to the last five minutes of the fourth quarter so one of them can pull off a miraculous yet controversial win? Because we all know that's how this one is going to end.

Bears over EAGLES: Ideal scenario: with a Dallas win earlier that day, the Eagles have nothing to play for because their Week 17 game is win-or-go-home regardless of how they do against the Bears. So LeSean McCoy barely gets any touches because they don't want to risk injury while Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall go nuts on a vanilla Philly defense that doesn't want to give the Cowboys any tape to work with. Why yes, I have Cutler and Marshall going against McCoy in one of my fantasy championship games; how did you guess?

49ERS over Falcons: This will be the boring blowout of a game in the background while Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico gush over the illustrious career of Tony Gonzalez for three hours.

Last week: 8-8 (yuck)
Season so far: 145-78-1

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