With the end of the season coming so abruptly yesterday, it was kind of tough to come to grips with everything being over. This is a loss that stings, no doubt, but time marches on. So we now look to the off-season, and start looking ahead to see what kind of roster changes the Vikings will be looking at come free agency and draft time.
The first thing we'll take a look at will be impending Vikings free agents, per Rotoworld. To be honest, there aren't a lot of seismic shakeups coming with unrestricted free agents the Vikings have, and making an educated guess as to whether or not they'll be back isn't all that difficult.
Again, this is just speculation, as I've heard nothing official from any source, reliable or otherwise. And there are always at least one or two surprise signings or releases that we don't see coming. But they are educated guesses, I think, based on age, past performance, and positional need. So, with that out of the way, let's get to it. Oh, wait, let's clear up the difference between an exclusive right free agent, a restricted free agent, and an unrestricted free agent.
Exclusive rights free agent: Players with two or fewer seasons of service time and whose contracts have expired. If the Vikings tender a qualifying offer (a one-year contract usually at league-minimum salary) the player has no negotiating rights with other teams, and must either sign the tender with the team or sit out the season.
Restricted free agent: Players who have three or fewer accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. RFAs have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club until a deadline which occurs approximately a week prior to the NFL Draft, at which time their rights revert to their original club. If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.
Unrestricted free agent: Free to sign with any team. However, the Vikings may elect to designate an unrestricted free agent with a franchise or transition tag.
Okay, NOW let's get on with it.
Matt Asiata, RB, unrestricted: I honestly don't know what's going to happen with Asiata. He's carved out a niche as the Vikings third running back, and unless Minnesota looks to draft a guy looking to complement Jerrick McKinnon once Adrian Peterson's time ends, you can make a solid case that Asiata will be back, and the Vikings will hold off a year addressing the long term answer for Peterson's roster spot.
Carter Bykowski, OL, exclusive rights free agent: I'm going to say he's tendered and re-signs, if for nothing else to have OL competition and camp bodies for Mankato. Bykowski tore his pectoral muscle early in the pre-season, and was solidly in the mix for a backup job on the line, so him coming back to compete for a job in 2016 makes a lot of sense.
Mike Harris, G, unrestricted: Harris proved to be a solid back who was thrust into a starting role early in the pre-season and played well, all things considered. I would be surprised if the Vikings wouldn't want him back for depth and to contend for a starting spot again. With age and injuries rampant here in 2015, depth on the line is an issue, and Harris provides that if he doesn't win a starting job again.
Zach Line, FB, restricted free agent: With Peterson more than likely returning, Line is a valuable asset in the running game, and I anticipate the Vikings tendering him high enough that no one else will offer him a deal, and he returns.
Adam Thielen, WR, exclusive rights free agent: I'll be stunned...STUNNED...if the Vikings don't tender Thielen and bring him back.
Robert Blanton, S, unrestricted: Bye Felicia. I have to think safety is something that the Vikings will either address in free agency or the draft, and Blanton feels like the odd man out. He was given every opportunity to win the job since Mike Zimmer arrived, he hasn't done so, and his play and playing time have regressed.
Audie Cole, LB, unrestricted: I think the Vikings would like to bring Cole back, but I also have a suspicion he'll get an offer from a team with an opportunity to start. If that happens, it will be for more money than the Vikings will want to offer, and without a real shot at a starting gig here, he'll leave. And as much as we love Audie in these parts, the Vikings aren't going to franchise him. ZOMGAUDIENO!!!!!!!11!!!!!
Kenrick Ellis, DL, unrestricted: As a rotational depth guy? Sure, maybe. Don't see him as a priority, though, and there will probably be better options in both free agency and the draft.
Chad Greenway, LB, unrestricted: After yesterday's loss, Greenway said he wants to come back for one more year, because he doesn't want his career ending the way it did Sunday. His 2015 season was a bit of a renaissance, as Greenway, who was used situationally, had arguably his most effective season since 2009. I can easily see a one year, incentive laden vet minimum deal for him.
Casey Matthews, LB, unrestricted: Hard to say about Matthews, as he was hurt and went on IR right after he was signed last spring. I would think they'd re-sign him and see what he can do, but moving on is just as easily a scenario. In short, no idea.
Terence Newman, CB, unrestricted: I really didn't understand the Newman signing last year, but it turned out to be a great move for the Vikings and Newman, as he had a great season. With Trae Waynes expected to step up next year and contend for a starting spot, I can see the Vikings moving on. But head coach Mike Zimmer loves him, and Newman coming back on another one year deal as a potential depth guy, starting CB, or even a safety, wouldn't surprise me one bit.
Josh Robinson, CB, unrestricted: After Robinson's injury that saw him go on the PUP list and miss a significant chunk of time due to his torn pectoral suffered in minicamp, his lack of use/effectiveness once he did see the field, and a lot of depth at cornerback, I can easily see the Vikings moving on. That said, I believe how the Vikings approach Robinson will hinge in large part on Newman. If he comes back, Robinson is gone and the Vikings look for CB depth in FA or the draft. If Newman goes, Robinson comes back.
Andrew Sendejo, S, unrestricted: I have a lot of issues with Sendejo as a starter, and I was amazed, time and time again, at how many bad plays he made in 2015. That said, when he was hurt and was replaced with either Antone Exum or Robert Blanton...I longed for Sendejo to be back out there, because those guys were worse. Even though I really believe that the safety position opposite Harrison Smith is the second biggest off-season need behind offensive line upgrades, I wouldn't be opposed to Sendejo coming back in a backup role. The guy can hit, and he seemed to improve his play late in the season.
Marcus Sherels, CB/PR, unrestricted: Are you going to count out Sherels? I'm not. He's as valuable a special teams guy as there is in the NFL. It's going to be fun watching all the 'Sherels is going to get cut' comments and posts when we do roster projections and he still makes the final 53. because that's what Marcus Sherels does, kids.
Justin Trattou, DL, unrestricted: Trattou had flashes of serious talent, and I see the Vikings making a push to re-sign him. He proved his worth as a depth guy on the line, and unless he gets an offer that blows away a Vikings offer, he'll be back.
Jason Trusnik, LB, unrestricted: Trusnik is another depth/special teams guy I think the Vikings try and bring back.
As to assigning the franchise tag to players, I don't see anyone on the roster that is that valuable they can't afford to let them walk if they can't get a deal done. It's a cost prohibitive contract to the salary cap, for one, and Rick Spielman has used it sparingly. The last player the Vikings gave a franchise tag to was LB Chad Greenway in 2011, and that was with impending free agents Sidney Rice and Ray 'in the corner stands a boxer' Edwards. The Vikings aren't faced with that much high level talent potentially leaving this off-season, so yeah, there won't be any franchise or transition tags getting slapped on anyone.