As the new league year is underway, along with a few deals so far in free agency for the Vikings, and the NFL Draft just over a month away, it makes sense to take a look at the Vikings roster, where it is good, bad, and mediocre, and where realistic opportunities to improve it may be available.
The Vikings, along with most NFL teams, don’t have a lot of salary cap space to work with, after an unprecedented reduction in the NFL salary cap last year, so following the Cousins’ extension, which put them about even with the 2022 salary cap, every addition needs to be offset with a reduction elsewhere, whether through a contract restructure or release.
The Vikings also have a nearly a full slate of draft picks next month, with a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, three 6ths, and one 7th round draft pick.
So with that prelude, let’s look at where the Vikings roster stands at present, breaking it down by overall PFF grade last season and the corresponding rank among all players at the same position.
WR - Justin Jefferson - 90.2 (4/115)
QB - Kirk Cousins - 88.2 (6/37)
S - Cam Bynum - 78.3 (NR- less than 20% of snaps)
S - Harrison Smith - 77.9 (11/92)
EDGE - Danielle Hunter - 80.8 (14/107)
EDGE - Za’Darius Smith - 76.7 (15/114) (2020 grade/ranking)
DI - Harrison Phillips - 75.2 (15/110)
DI - Dalvin Tomlinson - 74.9 (16/110)
CB - Cam Dantzler - 73.8 (17/116)
WR - Adam Thielen - 74.6 (35/115)
RT - Brian O’Neill - 73.7 (34/83)
LT - Christian Darrisaw - 71.9 (36/83)
TE - Irv Smith Jr. - 70.0 (19/71) (2020 season)
LG - Ezra Cleveland - 68.6 (27/82)
LB - Jordan Hicks - 62.6 (30/87)
LB - Eric Kendricks - 59.9 (37/87)
SCB - Harrison Hand - 62.2 (NR - less than 20% of snaps)
RB - Dalvin Cook - 65.8 (42/62)
WR - KJ Osborn - 64.9 (76/115)
RG - Oli Udoh - 54.8 (64/82)
C - Garrett Bradbury - 60.2 (29/39)
CB - Kris Boyd - 39.0 (NR - less than 20% of snaps)
Beyond these current starters, the Vikings special teams units ranked 9th overall according to PFF. Greg Joseph made 86.8% of his field goal attempts, which is roughly league average, but one more made instead of missed, or vice-versa, would put him in the top third or bottom third, so fairly sensitive stat.
If you compare the Vikings current roster to those of the teams that went to the Championship games last season, the biggest difference is the number of bottom third players. Most Super Bowl contenders have all their starters balanced between top 20% and top half of league rankings at their positions, with basically no players in the bottom third. They also have at least a few top players- often at QB and WR - which the Vikings have, but usually at least one on defense as well- which the Vikings don’t really have but are close.
And so the first thing is to look at how to upgrade the players in the bottom third.
Some may be surprised to see Dalvin Cook in the bottom third at his position, but last year was not a great year for him. He turns 27 this year, so I wouldn’t say he’s past his prime yet, even for a RB, but the one thing that’s always an issue with Cook is how healthy he is. He gets banged up during the season, in part because he gets a lot of reps, and that can have an effect on his game. The other thing with Cook last season may have been the run plays called for him, which may not have been as well designed. Whatever the reason for Cook’s decline last year, his PFF grade may overstate it somewhat. He’s not going anywhere this season- he’s locked in contractually- so getting him back to the more explosive player he was in 2020 may take a combination of good health and better play design. I don’t know that there was a big difference in run blocking between last year and 2020, but certainly there is room for improvement on that score as well.
As a WR3, KJ Osborn isn’t as critical to the offense, but he’s also a player with upside after completing just his first year in this role. He had some explosive plays when targeted, but his yards per route run was just 1.30 - roughly league average. Any WR3 is going to struggle in that category, as they’re unlikely to be targeted as often as WR1 or WR2 - otherwise they’d be a WR1 or WR2. But certainly with just a year on the job, Osborn has the capacity to improve in year two. Additionally, Osborn could also be challenged by Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who showed some flashes late in the season, but still has only a relative handful of reps in the NFL. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Vikings to spend a later round draft pick on a WR either, or pick up a cheap one in free agency, but difficult to see either surpassing Osborn and Smith-Marsette on the depth chart- although it would be nice if it happened.
At right guard, while Oli Udoh was the starter last season, I suspect the plan may be for Udoh to be the swing tackle this season, and either Wyatt Davis, a free agent, or a draft pick replace him at right guard. The Vikings have met with Ryan Bates, who’s played every OL position except right tackle for the Bills, and who could compete at center and/or right guard. He’s only 25, and gave up just 3 pressures (no sacks) on nearly 300 attempts last season, so he’s shown some ability in limited playing time. The meeting with the Vikings reportedly went well, but Bates has met with a few other teams since then, so unclear if he’ll sign with the Vikings or not. The Bills signed him to an RFA original round tender (he went undrafted) at $2.433 million, so the Vikings would have to top that offer, and presumably win a bidding war to land him.
At center, Garrett Bradbury has underperformed throughout his rookie contract, after being drafted in the first-round in 2019. The Vikings have until May 2nd to exercise his 5th year rookie option at $13.2 million, but virtually no chance they will do so, given his performance and market value. Bradbury is currently a $4.1 million cap hit, and if the Vikings were able to trade him prior to June 1st, they could save $2.25 million in cap space. There are at least a few free agent centers available as well, most notably JC Tretter, 31, who was recently released from the Browns, and has been a top center for years. He’d be a more expensive option- probably $7-$9 million/year range- but would likely shore up the middle of the Vikings offensive line in a hurry.
With only one starting cornerback on the roster from last season- Cam Dantzler - it’s expected that the Vikings will be looking to add to that position in both free agency and the draft. Patrick Peterson has expressed his desire to return to the Vikings, but it’s unclear at this point if the new coaching staff is targeting him in free agency or not. Bryce Callahan is a slot cornerback who’s played under Ed Donatell in Denver and Chicago, and could be targeted in free agency as well. Adding Peterson and Callahan would give the Vikings a solid starting lineup at cornerback, and allow them some flexibility in the draft. But it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising for the Vikings to select a cornerback with their first pick in the draft as they look to rebuild that position group. Derek Stingley Jr. is currently mocked most often to the Vikings, and the LSU corner makes a lot of sense for the Vikings. His injury history may allow him to drop to the Vikings at #12, but many consider him the #1 corner in the draft- ahead of Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner who will likely be drafted ahead of the Vikings.
Additionally, the Vikings will also need more interior defensive linemen. Beyond Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson, the Vikings have Armon Watts and James Lynch who can rotate and spell the starters. But the Vikings are moving to a multiple front defense, so they’ll need more 3-4 defensive ends to rotate. They could look to bring back Sheldon Richardson in that role, and there have been some rumors that the Vikings have interest in Akiem Hicks, who could fill that role well when healthy. Janarius Robinson, in his draft profile, was projected best as a 5-technique (3-4 DE) by some analysts, but he’s unproven at this point.
Lastly, the Vikings need another receiving tight end. Irv Smith Jr. is the starter, but the loss of Tyler Conklin creates a need for a tight end that is more than just a blocker- which is what the Vikings have on their roster at the moment. Using a third-round pick on a TE like Trey McBride may seem like a luxury, if he’s available at #77, but having a viable option beyond Smith Jr. makes some sense. If the Vikings didn’t want to invest as much in a TE, they could pick up Jake Ferguson from Wisconsin later in the draft.
How It Could Be Done
The Vikings had around $20 million in available cap space prior to the Za’Darius Smith signing. It’s unclear how that deal is structured, beyond a 3-year, $42 million deal with $5 million in incentives, but if it’s something like a $4/$10/$16 million base salary with a $12 million signing bonus, that would take up $8 million in cap space this year. That leaves about $12 million in cap space.
And with that cap space, the Vikings could make three acquisitions.
The first would be center JC Tretter. I’ll estimate his market value at about $6 million/year. Ted Karras, who’s two years younger, but lower PFF grades, signed a 3-year/$18 million deal, and for simplicity I’ll say age and PFF grade off-set with Tretter to reach the $6 million estimate. The Vikings could offer him a 3-year deal as well, at $2/$4/$6 million base salaries, and a $6 million signing bonus, giving him a $4 million cap hit this year. They could also then trade Garrett Bradbury, saving about $2 million in cap space. That would leave them $10 million in cap space.
They could then sign G/C Ryan Bates, who could compete for starting RG and also serve as the backup center. Bates has a one-year RFA tender offer of $2.4 million from the Bills, and has been shopping several teams, including the Vikings who met with him last week. The Vikings could offer him a two-year, $6 million deal structured $2/3 million base salary, with a $1 million signing bonus, giving him a $2.5 million cap hit this year. Might have to tack-on another year or up it slightly to sign him, but we’ll go with this for now. It may come down to which team he’d rather play for, better opportunity, etc. rather than money. In any case, signing Bates would take care of the RG spot and provide depth at center.
That leaves basically two cornerback spots- slot corner and outside corner. Vikings could work deals with Patrick Peterson, who’s expressed interest in returning to Minnesota, and Bryce Callahan, a slot corner that’s worked many years with Ed Donatell and the Fangio scheme. Could work two-year deals with both of them, perhaps a $3/$7 million deal for Peterson with a $3 million signing bonus, given him a $4.5 million cap hit this year; and a $2/$4 million deal with a $2 million signing bonus for Callahan. That would complete the starting cornerbacks.
That leaves the draft.
The Vikings could still draft a CB - Derek Stingley Jr. let’s say - in the first round who could learn and rotate behind fellow LSU-alum Patrick Peterson, creating quality depth at CB should either Peterson or Dantzler go down, and with the idea that he’ll replace Peterson at some point.
They could follow that up with a safety - an eventual replacement for Harrison Smith - as they need depth there this year too. A TE2 as mentioned above could follow. More depth at linebacker, another defensive tackle, wide receiver, probably another cornerback too.
Lastly, there is the situation with Anthony Barr.
Barr is a $10.8 million dead cap hit for the Vikings right now, and I suspect if they bring him back, they could do so essentially converting that dead cap to salary cap again. The Eagles just did a similar maneuver with Fletcher Cox, releasing him and signing him again the next day, which created a dead cap hit which presumably would be waived with the re-signing otherwise the Eagles would’ve simply lost $9 million or so in cap space. The Vikings could potentially re-sign Barr for $10 million, or less, without adding to their salary cap. To the extent the salary cap hit is less, it may actually save them some cap space if the dead cap is removed.
I believe the above is a realistic scenario to fill the main holes in the Vikings roster, which would make them competitive as a playoff team.
Of course player performance varies year-to-year based on a variety of factors, and it remains to be seen in which direction players will move this coming season. Generally older players for their position you’d expect to decline, although with Eric Kendricks, for example, he had quite an off-year last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he bounced back some.
Younger guys like the offensive linemen Ezra Cleveland and Christian Darrisaw could see improvement- wouldn’t be surprising given their age and experience- and possibly Irv Smith Jr. and Cam Dantzler as well. And if the offensive line improves, you’d expect Kirk Cousins to do the same with more time to throw.
Danielle Hunter could see improved production with a bolstered defensive line and bona fide pass rushing threat opposite him, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Harrison Smith declined a bit given his age.
The other thing is the development of backups. What about Wyatt Davis, Janarius Robinson, Harrison Hand, Chazz Surratt, Patrick Jones II, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Kene Nwagwu to name several? Even Oli Udoh and KJ Osborn could show improvement over their first season on the field.
The development of roster depth is always important, as even the most injury-fortunate of teams are likely to be down at least a couple players at any given moment. And how big the drop-off is can have an impact on the game’s outcome. At the same time, no team- Super Bowl champion or otherwise- can claim to have all the bases covered on their roster. No team has that much salary cap and has been that good drafting in the late rounds.
But the Vikings, with a few astute moves in free agency and the draft, could put together a contending roster. They’d need some help with a few things, like having the draft fall reasonably well for them, and landing a couple more key free agents, having top draft picks work out reasonable well, seeing some good improvement in young players, and not so much decline in older ones, but they’re on the cusp of being serious playoff contenders in the NFC if a few pieces fall into place, and they avoid the key injuries that have plagued them in recent years.
Is it realistic for the Vikings to field a Super Bowl contending roster from here for the 2022 season?
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