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Vikings Armchair GM 2015: version 1.0

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The Daily Norseman takes a stab at a comprehensive off-season plan for the Minnesota Vikings, complete with salary cap details, free agency and a mock draft.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Well, after last week's games the Vikings were officially eliminated from Playoff contention, at least mathematically speaking.  They had been long-shot playoff hopefuls for several weeks leading up to Week 15, but when the Cardinals beat the Rams last Thursday the Vikings were unceremoniously knocked out of the playoff race.  That means we fans can begin looking forward to the 2015 Draft and it also means it's time for a little Vikings Armchair GM'ing.  I'm going to do several of these off-season plans between now and draft day, but this first one is the "Keep Adrian Peterson and Don't Mess With His Contract" off-season plan.

So the first thing to do as General Manager is evaluate the roster with special attention to any pending free agents.  Ultimately, the final choices for the 53-man roster won't have to be made until after training camp and Preseason performances.  So this off-season plan can safely be filed in the "ridiculously too early" category, especially since the 2014 season isn't even finished yet.  But still, speculation is all part of the fun.  And since I hit on four off-season acquisitions through two versions of Armchair GM articles last year by including Anthony Barr and Shamar Stephen in mock drafts, and Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph as free agent targets; why not give it another go this year?

So this off-season plan will be divided into two parts: offense and defense/special teams.  The first element of the plan to look at is the Vikings 2015 free agents on offense.  To help gauge player value, I've used the player grades from Pro Football Focus as well as Football Outsiders DYAR rankings when available.  All contract information comes from Spotrac.  Generally speaking, I'm looking to retain players that grade positively and let players who grade negatively go to other teams.

2015 Vikings Free Agents - Offense

Player Name and Position

PFF Grade (and rank)

Football Outsiders Rank

2014 Cap Hit

QB Christian Ponder

-4.4 (46 of 76)

48 of 58

$3.23

FB Jerome Felton

+2.6 (7 of 43)

n/a

$2.12

G Vladimir Ducasse

-13.1 (124 of 138)

n/a

$0.64

G/C Joe Berger

+6.0 (18 of 138)

n/a

$0.64

OT Mike Harris

-3.4 (74 of 135)

n/a

$0.57

RB Matt Asiata

-10.3 (143 of 145)

27 of 40

$0.57

C Josh Samuda - IR

n/a

n/a

$0

As you can see, this is a pretty underwhelming list of free agents, at least from a contract point of view.  There is really only one player on this entire list that I would resign: center/guard Joe Berger.  Not only is he a versatile backup, he's been playing at a high level in relief action for several years.  He is arguably a better starting option than current guard Charlie Johnson, and was a clear upgrade over backup Vlad Ducasse (despite having an identical salary cap total).  The only other offensive player to have a positive grade was fullback Jerome Felton.  He is one of the best pure fullbacks in the NFL, but in this plan we will not be retaining his services, and here's why.  First, he's had his issues in the past with being able to stay on the field and there's no guarantee those issues won't crop up again.  Second, he'll be 29 at the start of this upcoming season (not the worst thing in the world) which means that we can't expect him to be a long term solution at fullback.  Lastly, and this may be the most important reason to cut him, he has barely been utilized in Norv Turner's offense.  At this point in the season he has played only 148 out of a possible 923 snaps, or roughly 16% of the offensive plays.  It simply doesn't make sense to pay Jerome Felton a multi-million dollar contract, as one of the best fullbacks in the league, to play only 16% of the snaps.  We could save a lot of money at a position that is simply not important in Turner's scheme by sticking with a guy like Zach Line, or even bringing in some other, cheaper free agents.  It's also worth pointing out that this season Felton has the 3rd highest cap number among all fullbacks, which makes it seem even more likely that the Vikings let him walk after this season.  I'm not arguing that Felton isn't worth the money, but I'm arguing that he isn't worth the money on the Vikings, where his position simply isn't valuable in the offensive scheme.  The rest of the players shouldn't need much explanation as to why we would let them go: their grades are poor and they simply didn't perform at a high level on the field in 2014.

According to Over the Cap (who is estimating that teams will have $140 Million in available salary), the Vikings will have just over $8.6 million in cap space in 2015.  This isn't a terribly large number, but it should allow us to chase a free agent or two.   Starting with our own guys, Joe Berger is a guy who has signed three 1-year contracts with the Vikings the past three years and is now 32 years old.  He likely doesn't have too many years left in the league, but for the past three years running he's signed a contract in the 900K-1mil range, and the plan is to continue that same trend for at least one more year.  Signing Berger lowers our cap space to $7.7 million.  We need to find some more cap room for outside free agents, so the table below highlights three more players on offense who are not going to be free agents in 2015, but who have underperformed in 2014 and have relatively high cap numbers.  These are candidates to be cut or have their contracts restructured to free up some additional cap space.

Vikings 2014 Underachievers - Offense

Name and Position

Contract Status

PFF Grade (and rank)

2015 Salary Cap Hit

2015 Dead Money

Cap Savings

WR Greg Jennings

Restructure

-1.2 (109 of 211)

$11,000,000

$6,000,000

+$2,000,000

TE Kyle Rudolph

Status Quo

-2.8 (89 of 132)

$6,550,000

$5,250,000

n/a

OT Matt Kalil

Status Quo

-30.4 (133 of 135)

$6,290,644

$6,290,644

n/a

OG Charlie Johnson

Released

-12.9 (124 of 139)

$2,500,000

$0

+$2,500,000

QB Matt Cassel

Status Quo

-7.5 (55 of 71)

$4,750,000

$0

n/a


Due to their injuries, I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to Kyle Rudolph and Matt Cassel by maintaining the status quo with their contracts.  And since both of them just signed contract extensions last year they won't be approached about restructuring (although cutting Cassel would incur $0 in dead money and therefore he could be cut for free).  Still, Rudolph and Cassel are safe in this plan.  I only highlight Matt Kalil just to show how poorly he has been graded so far in 2014.  When we were bemoaning Charlie Johnson as a left tackle in 2011, even he wasn't as bad as Kalil has been this year (Johnson finished 118 out of 150 that year).  I do not think that Matt Kalil will be cut, as his dead money number is identical to his cap hit meaning the Vikings would be out over $6 Million towards the cap if they cut him, and since 2015 will be the last year of his rookie deal it doesn't make sense to restructure his contract this coming off-season either.  That means the Vikings are basically stuck with Matt Kalil for the 2015 season.

But in the case of Charlie Johnson and Greg Jennings, something should be done.  Since Charlie Johnson has no dead money counting against the cap if he is cut, the answer is simple: cut him.  There are better options in free agency or possibly the draft for a starting left guard than Charlie Johnson.  As for Greg Jennings, his cap number is insane for the level of production he's been providing.  It's the 12th highest cap number among wide receivers, but he's ranked in the middle of the pack at his position (Football Outsiders ranks him 41st out of 84 qualifying receivers). He's still a polished route runner with great hands, but at age 31 he will only decline from here, and he's nothing more than a possession receiver at this point in his career (and arguably the 2nd best receiver on the team).  The Vikings would incur $6 million in dead money if he were cut this off-season, so cutting him isn't happening.  But a contract restructuring could be a good idea since his base salary jumps up significantly next year while his cap number will stay the same over the next 3 years.  However, since his dead money number in 2016 and 2017 is much lower ($4 million and $2 million respectively) than this year, they could easily restructure his deal to give him more guaranteed money in 2015 and 2016, while also lowering his base salary to keep his cap number lower.  Keeping Jennings on the current contract through 2017 (when he turns 34) seems unlikely.  In this plan we're asking Jennings to restructure his contract to save an extra $2 Million towards the cap.  That still makes him overpaid, but the pill is easier to swallow.  If the Vikings were to ask Jennings to restructure he may not agree, since his dead money is so high.  The Vikings don't have much leverage in negotiations this season because of that, but they will have much more leverage in 2016 and even more in 2017.  In any case, cutting Johnson and restructuring Jennings frees up $4.5 million in cap space in this plan, bringing our available cap space total up to $12.2 million.

With all those moves so far that puts guard at the top of our needs list.  Yes, we drafted David Yankey last year, but even with all of the injuries to the offensive line he has not seen even a single snap on offense this year, despite getting the most total snaps of any Vikings guard in the Preseason.  That does not bode well for his future chances on the Vikings, and for what it's worth Pro Football Focus graded his 146 Preseason snaps -1.6 overall, with a -4.7 grade in pass blocking and a +2.8 grade in run blocking.  We also need to find a third quarterback to replace Christian Ponder and could use some general depth at offensive tackle, with eyes on a replacement for Matt Kalil.  Even wide receiver could arguably be a need with Patterson disappointing this season and Jennings getting older.  Patterson is still young, so there is still hope for him, but the Vikings would be wise to add some more depth there too.  Unfortunately, the draft is pretty thin at guard this year.  According to CBS Sports there are no bona-fide 1st round prospects at the guard position, although there are a small handful of names that project as low 1st-3rd round prospects.  I don't think our answer at guard will be found in the draft.  After looking over the available free agents, there really aren't any veteran stop-gap options that we could sign for a cheap short-term deal.  We might as well resign Charlie Johnson if we wanted to go that route.  So that means instead we're looking for a young guy coming off his rookie contract to sign him to a big money, long term deal.  Lucky for us, there are several good options:

-OG Mike Iupati, San Francisco

He will be the highest graded free agent guard this year and the 49ers won't want to let him go.  He has a +8.3 grade from Pro Football Focus, ranked 14th out of 80 guards, and he plays primarily on the left side.  He will likely be looking for a contract worth at least what Jon Asamoah got last year or Louis Vasquez the year before: roughly $5 Million/year on average.  As a former 1st round draft pick though, Iupati already makes an average of $3.5 million/year so it's possible he is looking for even more money.  If we can't land Mike Iupati, perhaps a slightly cheaper, but still good option for left guard could work out by signing Orlando Franklin (+5.7 grade) or Clint Bolling (+1.5 grade).

In this offseason plan, we're going to pass on the expensive Mike Iupati and instead sign the 25-year old Clint Boling (the youngest of the bunch) to a deal worth an average of $5 million/year, which lowers our total available cap space to $7.2 Million.  With that in mind, let's turn our attention to the defense/special teams.  The table below outlines the impending free agents on the defensive and special teams side of the ball.

2015 Vikings Free Agents - Defense/Special Teams

Player Name and Position

2014 PFF Grade

2014 PFF Rank

2014 Cap Hit

DT/DE Corey Wootton

-13.0

86 out of 91

$1.70

LS Cullen Loeffler

-16.5

1145 out of 1145

$1.27

DT/DE Tom Johnson

+7.2

21 out of 119

$0.85

ILB Jasper Brinkley

+2.5

18 out of 126

$0.83

ILB Dom DeCicco - IR

n/a

n/a

$0.57

DE Justin Trattou

-0.1

38 out of 91

$0.13

It's another short and underwhelming list of potential free agents, and only two of the names on it have a positive grade.  Still, Tom Johnson and Jasper Brinkley have acclimated well to Zimmer's new defense and while Johnson is a rotational backup, and Brinkley is a 2-down run stuffer, both have earned new contracts in my opinion.  Neither player is a full-time starter so both are solid depth players that could be had on a 2-3 year deal worth around $1.5-2 million per year.  In this plan we'll re-sign both for a total of $3 million.  That brings our available salary cap space down to $4.2 Million which is a little low for signing new draft picks.  So, we'll need to look at our expensive underachievers on defense to find potential cuts and candidates for contract restructuring to free up even more cap space.

Vikings 2014 Underachievers - Defense/Special Teams

Name and Position

Contract Status

PFF Grade (and rank)

2015 Salary Cap Hit

2015 Dead Money

Cap Savings

LB Chad Greenway

Released

-14.9 (88 of 90)

$8,800,000

$1,700,000

+$7,100,000

DE Brian Robison

Status Quo

-7.9 (76 of 91)

$5,450,000

$3,000,000

n/a

P Jeff Locke

Status Quo

-9.2 (37 of 37)

$631,048

$92,096

n/a

On defense and special teams we don't really have too many high priced underachievers.  There are really just these three names, and Jeff Locke isn't what I would call "high priced."  I only include Locke because he is literally the worst graded punter in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.  I don't know enough about punt grading to make an informed decision, and it's worth pointing out that Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings punting 6th best in the league...somehow.  So, because of that uncertainty, and the low contract, Jeff Locke stays.  Brian Robison has had something of a down year, although his overall low grade is a bit deceiving and due mostly to his poor grades as a run defender.  As a pass rusher, Robison is still getting it done for the most part, despite a low sack total.  He is ranked 36th out of 86 in pass rushing productivity among 4-3 defensive ends.  And due to his relatively high dead money number, Robison is safe this year.  But if he doesn't return to form after the 2015 season he could be a strong candidate for a restructure as his cap hit is virtually the same while his dead money number continues to decline.

But that leads me to discuss Chad Greenway.  While he continues to rack up high tackle totals, Pro Football Focus has graded him at or near the bottom of 4-3 outside linebackers for a number of years now.  And in fact, the Vikings had him restructure his contract this past offseason, perhaps with the intent of letting him go after this season.  This year he's graded as the 3rd worst 4-3 outside linebacker, and even worse, he has the 5th most missed tackles of all 4-3 outside linebackers and allows the 17th highest passer rating in coverage.  In this plan, Chad Greenway is cut and the Vikings simply eat his $1.7 million dead money amount.  That brings the available cap space up to $11.3 million.  Generally speaking, NFL teams should reserve about $7 million to sign their rookies and it's always good to have a cushion of a few million to play with.  That gives us about $2 million and change to bolster the defense.

With the releases we've made and the free agents we've let go, linebacker is clearly the biggest need on defense, followed by depth at defensive end, and possibly safety.  While Gerald Hodges has looked decent as a fill-in (+5.8 grade), and we're resigning Jasper Brinkley, I'm not convinced that Brandon Watts, Michael Mauti and Audie Cole are reliable backups (none have received more than 17 snaps this year).  We arguably need a better starting option opposite Anthony Barr at the weakside linebacker spot, and could also look for a more long-term option at inside linebacker than Jasper Brinkley.  There are plenty of linebacker options available in the draft (it's particularly deep at outside linebacker), so we're going to use our salary cap space on a free agent defensive end, someone cheap and "under-the-radar."

DE Jarius Wynn, Buffalo

Wynn is a 5-year pro and backup end for the Bills vaunted defensive line and a free agent in 2015.  He's stuck behind stalwarts like Mario Williams (2nd best 4-3 defensive end) and Jerry Hughes (19th best).  But Wynn is 28 years old, and has played 264 snaps as a rotational player this year garnering a +0.2 grade.  As a veteran backup, he would be exactly the kind of signing the Vikings made this past off-season when they signed Tom Johnson and Corey Wootton.  Wynn's 2014 cap hit is minimal, only $635,000, and he could easily be signed with our available cap space.  If that doesn't work out, we could consider similar options like Anthony Spencer of Dallas (+0.5), or Derrick Shelby of Miami (-1.1 grade).

In this plan, we're going to sign Jarius Wynn for a contract worth an average of $1 Million per year.  That brings our available cap space down to $10.3 Million, plenty to sign our rookies and a little left over just to be safe.  And speaking of rookies, I couldn't go this far through the off-season plan without including a mock draft, could I?  If the season ended today we would have the 11th overall pick.  I used firstpick.com to mock draft with CBS Sports Prospect Rankings as my big board.  That gave me the following result:

Round 1, Pick 22 (trade down with Pittsburgh to acquire extra 2nd and 4th round picks): WR Devante Parker, Louisville
Round 2, Pick 11: OT/C Cameron Erving, Florida State
Round 2, Pick 22: OLB Eric Striker, Oklahoma
Round 3, Pick 11: OT Jake Fisher, Oregon
Round 4, Pick 11: RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Round 4, Pick 22: SS Jordan Richards, Stanford
Round 5, Pick 11: CB Ladarius Gunter, Miami
Round 6, Pick 11: QB Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Round 7, Pick 11: ILB Trey DePriest, Alabama

Undrafted Free Agent: LS Andrew East, Vanderbilt

First Pick gave my draft an A- grade with a score of 4810.  I hopefully addressed needs while also grabbing good value picks throughout the draft.  It's a little too early to project all the undrafted free agents, but with not resigning Cullen Loeffler we need to find a replacement, hence my inclusion of Andrew East.

So with this entire offseason plan all spelled out, that would leave us with the following ridiculously early 53-man roster projection for the 2015 season.  Notice we have four running backs (just in case Peterson remains suspended indefinitely, or does something stupid again), and I had to make a couple additional cuts to fit all 53 players on the roster.  On offense I cut tight end Marquis Gray and tackle Austin Wentworth, both graded in the negative and both having seen not many snaps.  Antonio Richardson is cut mainly because the success rate of coming back from his knee surgery has been historically very low.  Adam Thielen was a tough one to cut as well, since technically he has a +0.9 overall grade.  But if it's a choice between keeping Thielen, Parker and Patterson, I think Parker and Patterson have greater upside.  On defense Jabari Price and Shaun Prater both get cut as Price has one of the worst grades on defense, and Prater has only seen 5 snaps all year.  Below is the finished product.

2015 Vikings Depth Chart Projection - Offense

QB

Teddy Bridgewater

Matt Cassel

Sean Mannion

RB

Adrian Peterson

Jerick Mckinnon

Ben Tate

Jeremy Langford

FB

Zach Line

WR

Greg Jennings

Charles Johnson

Jarius Wright

Cordarrelle Patterson

Davante Parker

TE

Kyle Rudolph

Rhett Ellison

Chase Ford

ROT

Phil Loadholt

Cameron Irving

ROG

Brandon Fusco

C

John Sullivan

Joe Berger

LOG

Clint Bolling

David Yankey

LOT

Matt Kalil

Jake Fisher

2015 Vikings Depth Chart Projection - Defense/Special Teams

LDE

Brian Robison

Jarius Wynn

DT

Shariff Floyd

Tom Johnson

DT

Linval Joseph

Shamar Stephen

RDE

Everson Griffen

Scott Crichton

WLB

Anthony Barr

Brandon Watts

MLB

Jasper Brinkley

Trey DePriest

Michael Mauti

SLB

Gerald Hodges

Eric Striker

LCB

Xavier Rhodes

Josh Robinson

RCB

Captain Munnerlyn

Ladarius Gunter

Marcus Sherels

FS

Harrison Smith

Antone Exum

Jordan Richards

SS

Robert Blanton

Andrew Sendejo

K

Blair Walsh

P

Jeff Locke

LS

Andrew East