Wrapping up a disappointing 8-8 season with a 38-10 win over the listless Chicago Bears (3-13) last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings front office and coaches must now turn their attention to the off-season and to improving the team for next year. If the team intends to return to the playoffs next year, they will need to make some big moves and big decisions, both with personnel and coaches. While the draft will be key to the team’s success, the lead up with free agency and organizational decisions will be extremely important as well.
Minnesota Vikings Pre-Draft To-Do List
Sort Out the Offensive Staff
When offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned in early November, tight ends coach Pat Shurmur was named his temporary replacement. While the team has given no indication of whether or not Shurmur will keep his position, there are several offensive minds that general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer should consider. Former San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy, relieved of is duties at the end of the season, may be an intriguing option. McCoy is known for his ability to mold his offense to the personnel he has available. He had success with Tim Tebow and Philip Rivers, showing the versatility of his philosophy. Another name to watch will be former Eagles and 49ers coach Chip Kelly, whose spread offense took the NFL by storm during his first two season in the league. Kelly’s fast paced offense worked for Sam Bradford in 2015, and whether it is Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater taking snaps week one next season, Kelly’s system could jump start a Vikings offense that has struggled in recent seasons.
The other coaching position to watch will be the offensive line coach. Tony Sparano was brought in to fix the line, and instead coached a group that paved the way for one of the worst rushing attacks in NFL history. Although the group faced more than their share of injuries, playing twelve different linemen and starting T.J. Clemmings, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’s 2nd worst offensive tackle, some of the blame must be placed on Sparano. His line could not find a way to open holes for runners or to protect Bradford for much of the season. As with Shurmur, there is no indication that Sparano will be relieved of his duties, but do not be surprised if the organization decides to move in a new direction.
Free Cap Space by Cutting Dead Weight
Adrian Peterson‘s time as an NFL superstar is over, regardless of if he thinks he can play seven more seasons or not. After only managing to play in three games this past season, and with the $18 million owed to him next season, Peterson will not be back in Purple, even if he claims he would consider taking a pay cut. It is time to move on from a player who has recently been more of a distraction than a contributor.
Not only does the team need cap space to re-sign its own players and to sign new players this season, but with Xavier Rhodes and other young stars’ contracts nearing expiration, the team will need to clear cap space down the road.
By cutting Peterson along with oft-injured defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, under-performing right guard Brandon Fusco, unused wide receiver Jarius Wright, and complete bust defensive lineman Scott Crichton, the team could free up over $30 million of additional cap space headed into free agency.
Resign and Extend Key Pieces
Of the free agents hitting the market from Minnesota, the names to watch are corners Terrance Newman and Captain Munnerlyn, linebacker Chad Greenway, left tackle Matt Kalil, tight end Rhett Ellison, full back Zach Line, punter Jeff Locke, and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Adam Thielen. All these players were starters or key contributors last season, and aside from Newman and Greenway who will likely retire, the team will likely have some interest in resigning them all.
The least likely of those names to return to Minnesota next season are Captain Munnerlyn and Cordarrelle Patterson. Munnerlyn’s replacement is already on the roster after the team drafted Mackenzie Alexander in the second round last year. Patterson has voiced his desire to remain in Minnesota, but after continual misuse in the offense, it is likely a team such as the Oakland Raiders or New England Patriots will be willing to pay Patterson more than the Vikings will.
Of the remaining five players, the most important and perhaps the most likely to be back is wide receiver Adam Thielen. A local product of Minnesota State University and former tryout and practice squad player, Thielen nearly accumulated 1000 receiving yards for the first time for a Viking since 2009. A restricted free agent, it is unlikely any other team will be able to acquire the talented wideout, but he still must be the team’s highest priority to resign.
Ellison, Line, and Locke will all likely be back as well, although Line and Locke will have to prove their worth in training camp. Kalil is an interesting case, as the former fourth overall pick has disappointed throughout his career and landed on injured reserve after week two last season, but those who tried to replace him for the rest of the year fared far worse than he did in his limited action. If the Vikings want Kalil back, they will likely have to over pay for him.
Make a Splash in Free Agency
The Minnesota Vikings are close to great success, and after a year hampered by injuries and freak off-field distractions, the front office must not be complacent in chasing the players in free agency that can help the team have success in the post season. Despite Rick Spielman’s preference of pursuing second tier players in free agency, this year, a big signing or two might be what it takes to put the team over the top.
Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth of the Cincinnati Bengals must be the Vikings’ top target. Although he is on the wrong side of 30, Whitworth continues to be one of the top blindside protectors in the league. It appears he is unlikely to re-sign with the Bengals, and although he will command over $10 million on the open market, he is a player the Vikings must vigorously pursue, especially given his connection to former Bengals defensive coordinator and current Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. If Whitworth is not available, watch for Jason Peters‘ name, the veteran left tackle for the Eagles who may be released in the coming weeks. While younger players like Ravens’ right tackle Ricky Wagner or Lions’ right tackle Riley Reiff may be attractive options, they are far less likely to hit the open market and will likely come at a higher price if they do.
At offensive guard, the top free agent is another Bengal, Kevin Zeitler. Young and durable, Zeitler may command a higher contract than the Bengals are willing to offer. If that is the case, Minnesota must do everything in their power to get Zeitler in purple next season. Unlike Whitworth, who is more of a high quality band-aid on the position, Zeitler is a high quality player in his prime who can be part of the solution for years to come.
J.C. Tretter, the Packers’ center is yet another lineman to watch. Given the team’s history of signing players from the other side of the border, and the need across the o-line, the signing would make sense.
If the team does part ways with Adrian Peterson, they will need to find another running back to fill the void. With a historically deep draft class, Spielman may be able to draft the workhorse of the future, but free agency may provide a fill in for the present. Options like Eddie Lacy and Latavius Murray would be excellent if they could stay healthy (and in Lacy’s case, at a reasonable weight), while second tier players like Christine Michael or DeAngelo Williams may be solid contributors in a back-by-committee approach.
On the defensive side, assuming the team moves on from Sharrif Floyd, they will need another three-technique defensive tackle. Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson filled in admirably last season, but they are not the same type of disruptive presence as Floyd was. A player like Nick Fairley would be a great target, someone who will not command a large cap number but who can produce as a productive rotational starter.
If neither Newman or Munnerlyn return next season, the team may wish to add some strong veteran depth to the cornerback position. Players like Morris Claiborne and Dre Kirkpatrick provide the athletic ability and size that Mike Zimmer craves in his defensive backs, and neither should command huge contracts as second tier players compared to other corners on the market.
Although the draft may be the most important part of the off season for long-term success, the Vikings’ already have a strong young core in place. The team is ready to win now, and success in preparation for and in free agency can set the tone for success over the next season. With several needs along the offensive line and no first round pick, the team cannot afford to rely on mid round picks like they have in recent seasons. The team also must hedge its bets, filling out the depth chart before the draft so that they need not reach for players at need positions who end up making little positive impact. By making good decisions to clear cap space, the team can make a splash in free agency, creating more options in the draft and creating veteran leadership at positions of need along the offensive line and throughout the team.