For the umpteenth offseason in a row, the Vikings have tiptoed the salary cap and found themselves with a little cash to burn.
Minnesota has used the usual tricks — void years and backloaded contracts — to stay cap compliant. Danielle Hunter’s restructured contract provided around $13 million of relief, and recent reports about Za’Darius Smith’s contract and Adam Thielen’s restructure explain how the Vikings recently had over $15 million of cap space, per OverTheCap. They used some of that dough to re-sign CB Patrick Peterson, who announced his return last Wednesday, and to bring in a pair of guards in Jesse Davis and Chris Reed on smallish deals.
Still, the Vikings could use help at multiple positions on each side of the ball and OverTheCap lists them at $12 million under the cap before seeing the terms of Reed’s deal — still barely enough to swing a move or two. Minnesota could also restructure Dalvin Cook’s contract if they desperately needed cash.
Here are some of the unsigned free agents that could still be helpful as the Vikings round out their 90-man roster.
KEELAN COLE: Considered by many as a Vikings free agent target last year, Cole didn’t work out well with the New York Jets. Cole spent his best years with receivers coach Keenan McCardell in Jacksonville, who he could reunite with in Minnesota. Dede Westbrook’s arrival in Minnesota last year served as the connection between McCardell and his former players.
- Key Stats: The Jets tried to make Cole an outside receiver, using him on the boundary 83.1 percent of the time, and his passer rating when targeted dropped to a career low 60.7. Cole has always performed best out of the slot, where he could get some reps in three- and four-receiver sets with the Vikings.
ADAM HUMPHRIES: Like Cole, Humphries is another true slot receiver that struggled with a new team in 2021 that had below-average quarterback play. His season with the Commanders produced just 22.5 yards per game and under 400 yards total. After playing on a $1.19 million cap hit in 2021, he’d be an inexpensive acquisition with room to return to his old form.
- Key Stats: From 2015-20, Humphries had three seasons with a passer rating when targeted over 100. He also had a highly-respectable yards per route run of 1.4 or better every year from 2018-20. It’s reasonable to believe the Commanders season was a blip on the radar.
ANTHONY FIRKSER: The former Titans receiver is an unrestricted free agent for the first time, so he’s likely holding out for a multi-year deal, but if he continues to slip through the cracks he could be a quality receiving threat adjacent to Irv Smith Jr.
- Key Stats: Playing under a $3 million salary, Firkser had a tough season in 2021. The previous three years, though, he ranked seventh, 18th and seventh, respectively, in yards per route run in his complementary role. Firkser is only 27 years old and has a career 106.7 when targeted.
JORDAN AKINS: Akins started playing college football late, so despite just finishing his rookie contract with the Texans, he’s about to turn 30 years old. Still, there’s plenty to like about his time with the Texans.
- Key Stats: Akins took a step back amidst Houston’s 2021 tank, but he was targeted over 100 times the previous two seasons by Deshaun Watson with over 400 yards each year. He is sure-handed with only five career drops in four seasons.
J.C. TRETTER: How much can the Vikings abuse void years to keep their salary cap under control? Looking at 31-year-old Tretter’s track record, he seems too pricey for the Vikings’ situation, but then you see what the Titans did with 32-year-old Ben Jones. Tennessee signed Jones to a two-year, $14 million deal that used a void year and kept his 2022 cap number at $3.4 million. That might be doable for the Vikings to upgrade at center.
- Key Stats: Tretter has been a top-five pass-blocking center each of the last four years. Presumably the Browns made the tough decision to release him for cap savings with promising young center Nick Harris waiting in the wings. Deshaun Watson isn’t cheap. But Tretter has allowed just 88 pressures in eight full seasons, while Garrett Bradbury has allowed 81 pressures in three.
NICK MARTIN: After being released in a cost-cutting move by the Houston Texans, Martin signed on to be a backup with the Raiders for $1.25 million, but he was far overqualified for that role. Assuming Martin hasn’t lost a step with his year on the bench, he has a great history as an excellent pass-blocker.
- Key Stats: Martin ranked 10th, eighth and ninth in pass blocking in his last three years as a starter. There’s no reason to believe he’s over the hill at age 28 (almost 29).
JERRY HUGHES: Way back in 2013, the Bills traded for Hughes and switched him from a traditional linebacker to a pure pass rusher with instant success. He played the next nine seasons in Buffalo and racked up 53 sacks. At 34, he may be looking for one more contract as a situational rusher.
- Key stats: While Hughes only had two sacks last year, his PFF numbers would suggest he was better than his sack totals. He had the ninth best pass rush grade and a top-10 pass rush win rate. Even if Hughes can’t get home like he did a few years ago, he can still cause havoc — the Vikings certainly learned that in 2018. And his health record is remarkably good. He missed one game during his entire tenure with the Bills.
MELVIN INGRAM: Many expected Ingram to be sought after in the free agent market last offseason but he ended up signing for cheap with the Pittsburgh Steelers and then being traded to Kansas City. That doesn’t sound promising on its face but he played well in KC, including racking up nine pressures between the divisional and championship rounds of the playoffs. If Ingram, who bounced back after an injury kept him out most of 2020, was willing to take a part-time role, he could be a strong addition to the Vikings’ pass rush.
- Key stats: Like Jerry Hughes, Ingram didn’t wow with his sack numbers but his pressure numbers were terrific. Including postseason, Ingram had the 14th best PFF grade among pass rushers and was 24th of 51 in pass rush win rate.
Additional options: Kyle Van Noy, Justin Houston, Whitney Mercilus
AKIEM HICKS: If nothing else, the Vikings could acquire Hicks to make sure that he doesn’t sign with anyone who plays against them. He has absolutely mauled the interior of the Vikings’ offensive line in recent years, most notably posting a multi-sack game at Soldier Field last year in Week 15. One major concern that may keep Hicks’ price down is his health. He has only cleared 500 snaps once in the last three years. But when he’s been in the game, he’s been very good.
- Key stats: Picked up 50 pressures on 499 pass rush snaps in 2020, ninth most in the NFL. In limited duty, still ranked 16th in pass rush win rate among DTs with at least 150 pass rush snaps last season.
CALAIS CAMPBELL: Reports have stated that Campbell hasn’t elected to hang ‘em up after his age 35 season. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he’s “crossing his fingers” that Campbell will return but it’s possible he could land elsewhere if the price and situation are right. The Vikings could use his size and pass rush experience to go along with their other veteran D-linemen.
- Key stats: The six-time Pro Bowler has one of the most remarkable health track records you will ever see. In 14 years in the NFL, he’s missed 12 games. He kept on trucking last year, though Campbell posted his lowest sack total since he was a rookie back in 2008. Still his pass rush win rate was higher than any of the Vikings’ interior defensive linemen from last year.
JOE HADEN: The former seventh-overall pick of the Browns remains on the market, reportedly holding out for a starting job. At this stage in the game, it might be tough to get a guarantee of starting but the Vikings can offer him an opportunity to compete for a gig.
- Key stats: Haden has aged fairly gracefully by his PFF coverage grades, dipping from 69.6 in 2020 to 65.0 last season. His stats on throws into his coverage ballooned in 2021 though, jumping from under 100 for five straight years to 114.2. Still, he committed only one penalty and allowed 11.2 yards per reception, which was above average (in a good way).
STEVEN NELSON: The 29-year-old corner has been a consistently-available and reliable player throughout his career. A down year in 2021 may have taken his name off teams’ radar, which could open the door for him taking a prove-it deal.
- Key stats: Until last season, Nelson was a bit of an analytics darling, giving up QB ratings into his coverage of 76.9, 73.3 and 82.3 from 2018-2020. Opposing quarterbacks surprisingly completed nearly 70% of their passes in Nelson’s direction after having never allowed a higher completion percentage than 62%. If his struggles were just a small sample size, he could be a late free agency steal.