It’s officially March, and that means football’s version of March Madness — free agency — is right around the corner.
Once again, there’s no expectation the Vikings will be major spenders, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be activity. Minnesota, for instance, finagled their bleak salary cap situation last spring into enough money to sign 10 (!) potential starters in Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander, Bashaud Breeland, Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly, Nick Vigil, Sheldon Richardson and Dede Westbrook. The average cap hit per player: Around $3 million per year.
The bargain bin approach, however, looked like a mistake in retrospect. Certain players were available at low prices for a reason, and that led to volatility in their play. The Vikings generally got what they paid for; they saw the most consistent performances from Peterson and Tomlinson, who signed the biggest deals of the bunch, and the play of $1.1 million signees like Alexander and Westbrook underwhelmed.
From a team-building standpoint, the Vikings’ choice to plug holes on the cheap wasn’t sustainable. Leaks kept re-opening until Minnesota had a sinking ship by season’s end, and the next regime was left to refill those holes because of all the one-year contracts.
It’s important to remember, though, that last year’s leadership took a win or bust approach that justified their short-term decisions. Despite proclamations from ownership that the team should remain competitive in 2022, the new regime of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell may not be as willing to restructure veteran contracts that kick money down the road or prioritize short-term signings over long-term development. That should be kept in mind when evaluating potential free agents, as well as free agency budget. For example, the Vikings could turn Dalvin Cook’s salary into signing bonus this year for additional savings, but that may not be a smart move to make long term, even if it costs them free agency capital.
The defense is where the truly difficult decisions will occur, but let’s ease in with a look at some targets on the offensive side of the ball.
Needs: A bridge starter if Kirk Cousins is dealt for draft picks
If Kirk Cousins is traded, and that trade does not return a veteran quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield, the Vikings will probably need to find a bridge starter unless they plan on rolling with a rookie to be determined later (unlikely).
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: Hey, things went pretty well the last time the Vikings signed a quarterback who was about to turn 40 during the season.
Fitzpatrick missed almost all of last season with a hip injury, but we are still left with a strong impression from Fitzpatrick’s 2020 season with Miami, where he went 4-3 as a starter. Fitzpatrick posted the highest QBR of his career (70.9) in that half-season with a career-best 68.5 percent completion rate.
Fitzpatrick signed a one-year, $10 million deal in Washington last season, and his injury status may decrease his value below that number.
QB Jameis Winston: The former Buccaneers starter signed a one year, $5.5 million to be the Saints starter, then went 5-2 with New Orleans before a season-ending ACL injury. That knee will likely give teams trepidation and slow his market, but Winston could be a perfect bridge if he gets healthy and can play as smartly in 2022 as he did under Sean Payton.
QB Marcus Mariota: The Vikings could also go with the guy who was taken one pick after Winston in 2015. The former Titans starter and Raiders backup fell out of favor in Tennessee, but he has a playoff win under his belt and one very strong season where he threw 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions (2016). His mobility would also increase his value.
Needs: Starting center, starting right guard
There is an embarrassment of riches in this year’s free agency class on the interior offensive line. Six of Pro Football Focus’s top 18 centers from last season are hitting the market, giving the Vikings an opportunity to upgrade from Garrett Bradbury. In addition, 10 of the top 34 qualified guards are available if the Vikings seek to improve their right guard spot from Oli Udoh.
C Brian Allen: In his first year as a full-time starter with the Rams, Allen ranked 10th among PFF’s qualified centers. At just 26 years old, the team that signs him could get his best years as a football player, and in Minnesota he’d be able to work in a scheme he knows.
C Ben Jones: A tried and true veteran. In 10 years with Houston and Tennessee, he’s never had a PFF grade below 69.4, which is superb consistency. Historically, Jones is a good pass blocker, he has experience playing guard for flexibility purposes, and at almost 33 years of age, he wouldn’t be all that expensive. A moderate three-year deal could keep Jones around for a few years to anchor the interior of the line.
RG Brandon Scherff: He is undoubtedly the top prize of all guard free agents, so he’ll probably demand Joe Thuney money, which was $16 million per year. The Vikings couldn’t swing this in their current situation, but if they traded Cousins and Danielle Hunter, for instance, they’d suddenly have money to make a deal like this.
RG Austin Corbett: The 26-year-old played over 2,500 snaps the last two seasons in the Rams scheme. His pass blocking has occasionally lagged behind his run blocking, but it would still be better than the Vikings have seen recently. PFF projects his contract at just over $9 million per year.
RG James Daniels: Super young at just age 24 and already has four years of reps under his belt as a left guard, center and right guard. Ranked as the No. 16 PFF guard last season. Frankly surprising he wasn’t extended by the Bears, but maybe Chicago didn’t want to pay a second guard big money when they already had Cody Whitehair. Daniels would be a strong zone blocker under O’Connell, and there’d be no concern about giving him a long-term deal based on his age.
Needs: Backup behind Irv Smith Jr.
The Vikings will likely lose Tyler Conklin in free agency, leaving them with Irv Smith Jr. and second-year man Zach Davison, who didn’t play last year. They’ll have to add tight end depth, and even though we’ll see fewer multi-tight-end sets than in years past, O’Connell may be want to take swings at weapons on all levels of the depth chart.
TE O.J. Howard: Whoever signs Howard is certainly justified in believing that they can get more out of him than the Bucs did. Tom Brady coaxed Rob Gronkowski back, who basically usurped Howard in the pecking order. Howard had some great moments in his three seasons before that, including 11 touchdowns and 997 yards in his first 24 professional games. The much-ballyhooed former first-round pick could be looking for a bridge deal.
TE Robert Tonyan: He tore his ACL last October, which will need to be considered, but the season before that he went off for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers. Like Howard, could be looking for a bridge deal.
TE Maxx Williams: Another guy who’s coming off an ACL tear, but the Vikings could take a swing on the former Gopher, who is amazingly seven years into his NFL career. Williams has never blossomed into the pass-catcher he was in college, but he remains an excellent blocker.
Needs: Another weapon to add to the group
Would the Vikings survive if they looked at their roster and said, ‘We’re good’: Sure they would. Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn and whatever Ihmir Smith-Marsette turns into is a good core. That being said, receivers get hurt, as O’Connell observed last year in L.A., and the Vikings will be rolling with more three-receiver sets. It’s not realistic for the Vikings to go after the Davante Adams’, Chris Godwins or Allen Robinsons of the world, but acquiring another strong veteran shouldn’t be out of the question.
WR Sammy Watkins: Though he only has one thousand-yard season in eight years, Watkins has always produced requisite of a depth receiver on the boundary. At almost 29 years old, Watkins would be a veteran presence who is comfortable in a complementary role and wouldn’t cost too much. PFF estimates a $5.5 million salary.
WR D.J. Chark Jr.: Coming off a fractured ankle, Chark will need to rehabilitate his body and his NFL stock. A true deep threat, Chark already has a 1,000-yard season under his belt in 2019 and followed that up with a 706-yard season in 2020 despite having lousy quarterback play around him. In those two seasons, he ranked 13th and third, respectively, in deep targets. Chark’s connection with Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell is obvious, but Chark would have to be willing to be a No. 3 or 4 receiver.
WR Keelan Cole: Another former Jaguar who may be drawn to McCardell, sort of like Dede Westbrook was last year. Cole had passer ratings when targeted of 115.6 and 104.6 in his last two years with the Jaguars before taking a deal with the Jets that didn’t work out well. New York tried putting Cole on the boundary, where he was less effective. Cole is best-suited in the slot, and there’s optimism he could flourish with better quarterback play.
Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison and Kene Nwangwu are all under contract. If the Vikings want another running back to eventual replace Cook or Mattison, they can find him in the draft.