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Coller: Vikings must tread lightly in free agency

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
Rick Spielman

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Free agency can make a good team great but it can’t make a bad team good. The Minnesota Vikings have to decide over the next few weeks which side of that statement they are on as they approach the start of free agency next week.

In recent years we have seen signings become a big difference maker for teams that reached the Super Bowl like left tackle Andrew Whitworth with the Los Angeles Rams, receiver Alshon Jeffrey in Philadelphia, receiver Sammy Watkins in Kansas City and Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul with Tampa Bay.

Those teams were all trying to add the final piece to the puzzle. The Eagles, Rams and Chiefs had quarterbacks on rookie contracts and strong supporting casts around Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes and in Tampa, the greatest QB in history was taking a shot in a new city.

The Vikings do not sound like these teams. They have an expensive non-GOAT quarterback with a defense that finished 29th and presently multiple openings on the offensive line. If we add up the needs for the Vikings, we get guard, tackle, probably receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle, maybe linebacker, cornerback and safety.

The situation in Minnesota looks a lot more like Las Vegas after they traded Khalil Mack (as the Vikings could do with Danielle Hunter if the two sides can’t work out a new contract). In 2019, the Raiders poured all the cash they could muster into Trent Brown, Tyrell Williams and Lamarcus Joyner. In total, they gave out contracts that could have been worth $152 million if they reached the end to those three free agents. In 2021, none of them will play for the Raiders.

Brown was traded to New England and Williams and Joyner were cut after injuries and poor performance plagued all three.

Matthew Coller's latest podcast: Purple Insider reacts to Riley Reiff being released

In 2019 the Raiders went 7-9 with their shiny new toys. Last year they finished 8-8.

Yes, this does feel like The Night Before Christmas and a ghost is showing you free agency’s future.

You might say that the situations are different because the Vikings do not have the cap space to give out crazed contracts to mid-tier free agents. We also said two years ago that they didn’t have the money to bring back Anthony Barr and somehow they did on a contract that they now want to get out from under.

After cutting Reiff the Vikings have around $9 million in space. GM Rick Spielman said last week they would have to “get creative” to find more room. There’s conversions of base salary to bonuses, extensions, cuts and maybe even a Hunter trade that could open up just enough space for the Vikings to be dangerous.

Not to mention that the masters of kicking the can down the road could do it with reckless abandon this year. The Vikings famously set up their contracts to have low cap hits in Year 1. Barr’s deal, for example, only carried a $5.2 million hit in its first year and now he’s going to cost $15 million in Year 3. With the expectation that a monstrous new TV deal and a 17-game season are on the way, the Vikings could throw dollar bills at free agents and design their contracts to fit snugly under the 2022 or 2023 cap.

The problem is that the salary cap remains not a myth and even with all the maneuvering in the world, top tier free agents would still be out of the Vikings’ price range. Not to mention that they’ve lost the pizazz as a potential destination over the last year or so.

That means Trent Williams isn’t coming to Minnesota. Top guard Joe Thuney probably isn’t unless he gets to own a large portion of US Bank Stadium too. It’s hard to see Kenny Golladay or Patrick Peterson or Carl Lawson signing on with a team that is coming off a 7-9 season and has uncertain futures abound either.

So the big boys aren’t signing here and overpaying the middle tier is dangerous. That leaves us with the bargain bin, where the Vikings have dug a little too deep in recent years. Tajae Sharpe, Anthony Zettel, Jordan Taylor, Tavarres King, Josh Doctson, Aldrick Robinson, Dakota Dozier, Tom Compton and the like have brought little value.

Luckily for the Vikings, there’s a whole new class this year in between the overpaid and risky middle and the XFL class. Because there have been so many cap cuts and teams will be desperately aiming to save money with the cap dipping down to $182.5 million, good players are going to be left out of the party.

Maybe someone like Los Angeles’s Austin Blythe, a three-year starter who can get the job done but will not wow anyone with his physical prowess. Or safety Xavier Woods, whose Cowboy defense let him down last year. Or receiver Keelan Cole, easily overlooked because he was playing for the Jaguars.

The Vikings should be looking for solid placeholders that would allow them to compete for the playoffs in 2021 while not sacrificing the future. Players who can hold the line while this year’s 12 draft picks (or more!) develop rather than getting their tails whipped like they did last season.

The problem is that the Vikings have too often in recent years felt desperation to win and it has influenced moves they regretted. Barr’s deal might be one. The Yannick Ngakoue trade is another. We’ll see if it ends up applying to Dalvin Cook’s contract extension.

Now might be the time to hang back and let things play out before diving into the treacherous free agent waters.

Though if they do go nuts with throwing money around, I’ll give them this: What fun is playing it safe? 

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