I realize I'm probably in the minority here, and I wasn't even in favor of the Vikings bringing in Josh Freeman in the middle of last season. It stunk of desperation, particularly when Leslie Frazier trotted him out against the Giants with only two weeks of practice with his new teammates in a new offense. But this is precisely why he should be retained.
With the #8 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, the Vikings have a less-than-favorable shot at selecting an honest-to-goodness franchise quarterback, especially with such an uncertain crop of candidates to choose from. Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles—there are significant question marks surrounding all of them, and unless the Vikings opt to trade away the farm and move up, the best of these players will likely be gone before Minnesota goes on the clock.
I don't want to see this team reach on a quarterback again. The salary implications of taking a quarterback this high notwithstanding, I believe there are significant holes on defense that need to be addressed in the Draft. Yes, the most important position on a football team is the quarterback. No question. But while the right quarterback can take you to the promised land, the wrong quarterback can set your team back for years.
Let someone else take an expensive flyer on Bortles or Carr. Let another QB-hungry team pay a king's ransom for Bridgewater or Manziel. Mike Zimmer wants to run a dynamic, hard-nosed, aggressive defense, and I want to see that defense take shape. It's well known that Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are likely gone, and the Vikings' linebacker core was woefully inept last season. Minnesota should select Anthony Barr or C.J. Mosley and be happy that they're getting an immediate force of nature who will anchor a critical position on defense and create all sorts of fantastic problems for opposing teams.
This brings me back to Josh Freeman.
I'm not saying the guy is a great quarterback. But he's young, strong-armed, physical, and experienced enough now to know how the pro game is played and what's expected of him as a passer. For those reasons, he deserves the chance to develop under a far more competent head coach and offensive coordinator in Zimmer and Norv Turner, respectively. He deserves a full off-season to learn the new offense and compete for a starting job. And the Wilfs deserve to see the investment they made, care of Rick Spielman, given a fair shake. Otherwise, it's just money out the window.
Really, this all boils down to giving a talented player a fair shake. He was given no time to develop a rapport with his offensive weapons, to improve his accuracy, to fine-tune the timing and delivery of his passes. With a full off-season and a healthy number of practice reps, I can't help but think we would see a vastly improved Josh Freeman. His lone game in New Jersey is simply not enough to warrant passing judgment on his potential to help Minnesota win.
I'm actually in favor of keeping Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, as well. Cassel is worth keeping as a reliable starter, but I think we've seen his ceiling in the NFL. Ponder, however, still confounds. From a football IQ perspective, he's impressive. And we've all seen flashes of truly brilliant play from the guy. But despite his inconsistent and sometimes frantic decision-making, I still believe he deserves one more season to learn and compete.
Again, this team just received two immense coaching upgrades in Zimmer and Turner. Ponder has one year left on his rookie contract and will be owed a modest $3.2 million. Why not bring him back for training camp/preseason and see how he takes to Norv Turner's approach? If he doesn't come along, cut him. But I still feel like this is a player who can be turned around, and compared to any potential first-round QB selection in 2014, Ponder is both cheap and already ahead of the curve.
This doesn't mean, however, that I'm against drafting any quarterback. I'm a firm believer in competition, so bringing in some new blood is always a good thing. Several teams have hit in recent years on quarterbacks that were not first-round selections (Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton), and stellar coaching was a big part of their success. It's likely that talented signal-callers like A.J. McCarron (Alabama) and Tajh Boyd (Clemson) will likely be available on Day 2. The CBA notwithstanding, these are still two very productive and coachable players with significant upside who can be signed for much less than a top-10 pick on Day 1.
Rick Spielman knows that if he drafts a QB in the first round and misses, he's gone. For this reason, it's my hope that he'll be smart enough to focus on building a winning team without having to reach unnecessarily on a Day 1 QB. That means letting these new coaches coach, and trusting them to nudge what was otherwise a very competitive 2013 Vikings team into playoff contention in 2014.
To recap (and other wish list details):
- Retain Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel, and Christian Ponder through training camp and preseason
- Draft an impact linebacker (Anthony Barr or C.J. Mosley) with first-round pick
- Draft a high-upside quarterback (A.J. McCarron, Tajh Boyd, or similar) with second-round pick
- Address offensive guard, defensive end, cornerback, and running back positions in subsequent rounds and/or free agency
- Retain all 2014 free agents, excluding Kevin Williams, Toby Gerhart, and J'Marcus Webb