Friday, March 30, 2007

A Plug For Peterson

As the NFL's 2007 college entry draft creaps ever closer, several questions remain regarding who will take whom, who will trade up, and who will trade down. With needs at several positions, the Minnesota Vikings remain one of the teams about whom little in this draft is certain. But with teams drafting ahead of Minnesota eyeing many of the same players that the Vikings covet, the Vikings' decision might be made for them before they deliver their first-round pick to Roger Goodell.

Waiting Game

In a previous post, I suggested a scenario by which the Vikings would find themselves in a position to draft Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson without trading up in the draft. That scenario requires every team ahead of Minnesota to draft for need and to understand their most pressing need. And that begins with Oakland taking JaMarcus Russell first overall in the draft after failing to trade for a quarterback capable of throwing the ball.

So far, Oakland has cooperated, failing in its bid to move wide receiver Randy Moss to Green Bay in exchange for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If, on the clock on draft day, Oakland has yet to land a starting quarterback for 2007, JaMarcus Russell should be their selection.

Detroit doesn't have frightening wideouts, but it does have two very good receivers in Roy Williams and Mike Furrey. With holes on the offensive line and at defensive end, the Lions would be wise to draft either Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams or Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas. This is probably where things begin to fall apart for the Vikings' prospects of landing Johnson. Millen's infatuation with wide receivers, the prospect of joining Johnson with Williams and using Furrey as a third receiver, and hoping that the offensive line holds up will probably be too much of a temptation for Millen to pass on. While that migh be bad for Vikings' fans hoping to land a high-end wide receiver in this year's draft, it might be one of Millen's best draft picks.

If Detroit opts for Adams or Thomas over Johnson, however, there is every reason to believe that Tampa Bay will forego long-term security at the quarterback position in favor of immediately pairing Johnson with newly acquired Jeff Garcia and hoping that the offense can make a tremendous leap in one season. And that assumes that Cleveland already has passed on Johnson in favor of a defensive end or an offensive tackle--or a greater need. . .

Peterson Possibility

With everyone focused on Johnson, however, another offensive star is quietly hanging out in the top ten of most draft boards, bouncing between fourth and tenth in most mock drafts. Arguably the second most skilled player in this year's draft, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson finds himself in the unique position of being no better than the fourth most coveted player on the board in 2007.

Peterson's predicament is a manifestation of the needs of teams in the top ten falling somewhere other than running back and the logistics of a draft that might make passing on less talented players in the first round too daunting for teams needing players at those positions in the draft but unlikely to uncover anything nearly as good later in the draft. Specifically, Peterson's dilemma is a manifestation of the draft having two highly regarded quarterbacks, one very highly regarded wide receiver, and seven teams in the top seven coveting the three players. Throw in a Gaines Adams and Joe Thomas and Peterson becomes the potential draft-day victim of a logistical squeeze.

Peterson's bad fortune could be the Vikings' good fortune, however, assuming the Vikings take the best player on the board and don't trade down. The key for Minnesota having a shot at Peterson is what Detroit does with the number two pick in the draft. If Detroit takes Johnson, Cleveland likely will take Brady Quinn as a short-term understudy to Charlie Frye. If Detroit takes Quinn, however, Cleveland likely will address its long-standing running back short-coming taking Peterson at number three.

Assuming Cleveland passes on Peterson, the running back should fall at least to the number seven spot in the draft. Of the teams currently slated to select in the top six in this year's draft, only Cleveland has enough of a pressing need at running back to warrant drafting Peterson so high. If Cleveland passes on Peterson, so, too, are Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Washington likely to pass on him.

Cleveland passing on Peterson would open the door for the Vikings to take a back that is both big enough to be an every down back and skilled enough to upgrade a position which, though a secondary concern this year, is a position at which the Vikings most heavily depend for any success in Brad Childress' slow as you go offense.

What's to like about Peterson? Plenty. Despite two serious injuries during his college career, Peterson appears ready to play in the NFL and in no immediate danger of having recurring injuries. If healthy, Peterson is a horse. And the numbers make a good case for drafting him high.

In 2005, his junior and final season in college ball, USC running back Reggie Bush tallied 1740 yards on 200 carries with 16 TDs. Bush augmented his rushing totals, hauling in 37 receptions for 478 yards.

In 2004, Peterson earned Heisman consideration as a freshman by rushing for 1,925 yards on 339 carries with 15 touchdowns. And, despite a collarbone injury that forced him to sit out six games in 2006, Peterson rushed for 1,012 yards on 188 carries with 12 touchdowns. He also added 10 receptions for 136 yards.

Though Bush clearly has the better speed numbers, having racked up a very impressive 8.7 yards per carry and nearly 13 yards per reception in his junior year, he had the decided advantage over Peterson of being but one of many offensive weapons on a solid USC team playing in a conference in which defense was primarily an afterthought.

Against arguably better defensive competition and on a team less laden with offensive stars, Peterson more than acquitted himself, demonstrating that, though probably not the same kind of talent that Bush is, Peterson's talent is unmistakable and likely to translate at the NFL level.

If the Vikings opt for offense in the first round, they could do far worse than drafting Peterson with the number seven selection. Whether that's the best option for a team now contending that it is in re-building mode is the subject of the next column.

Up Next: Elements of Rebuilding. Plus, Jackson versus Quinn versus Waiting.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Making Lurtsema's Eyes Water

It's becoming a broken record in the Minnesota Vikings' organization, as the team continues to take two steps sideways and another back. This week, after a miserable 2006 season and an off-season in which the Vikings not only filled none of their pressing needs but also lost at least two players who should have been starters in 2007, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf pleaded with the Vikings' fan base for patience.

According to Zygi, the Vikings have a plan for returning to Super Bowl contention. Like the Mike Tice-Red McCombs plan of 2002, however, that plan envisions a return to contention somewhere down the road rather than in the immediate future. In other words, seven years after the Vikings' organization put into effect its three-year plan for returning to the Super Bowl, Zygi envisions the Vikings being in position to contend for a championship.

The culprit behind the Vikings' predicament, according to Zygi, is not the head coach who turned a poorly coached 9-7 team into a more talent-laden 6-10 team. Nor is the problem the ownership's failure to recognize it's own measurable short-comings in the realm of professional football management, exemplified by Zygi's decision not to hire a quality personnel manager, arguably through the present day.

No, the real problems that have beset the Vikings' organization are that the team plays in the Metrodome and was short on talent evaluators until recently. While both issues undoubtedly have played a role in how the Vikings have made organizational decisions during Zygi's tenure, only the latter does anything to explain the incompetence of the current regime.

Zygi's insinuation that the Metrodome has caused some of the Vikings' on-field woes--an insinuation that Zygi appeared to intend as subtle but one that he delivered as bluntly as possible--is based on the premise that, because the Vikings do not make as much money in the Metrodome as other teams make in their stadiums, the Vikings cannot compete in the NFL.

For the record, any claim that the Metrodome's revenue stream hamstrings the Vikings is ludicrous. Unlike MLB, where non-ticket stadium revenue streams are essential, the Vikings have no such concerns. Not only do the Vikings enjoy nearly $115 million in television revenue from the league, they also receive millions more in revenue sharing because of their situation in the Metrodome. On top of that money, the team receives money from NFL licensing ventures, team radio affiliations, ticket sales, concessions, suites, and advertising. Combined, the team has revenues near or in excess of $200 million per season. Even with a payroll of nearly $90 million in 2007, the Vikings' ownership group is likely to profit to the tune of $40 million this year.

Thus, while the argument that the Metrodome costs the Vikings' revenue stream opportunities is perfectly legitimate, the argument that the Vikings' on-field woes can be traced to decisions that had to be made out of financial considerations is utterly ridiculous.

What Zygi's angle is is not entirely clear. On the one hand, he's always appeared somewhat inept at the football bit. When he first came to town, he preached family and responsibility--a clear sign of trouble given that Zygi preferred these topics over football-related topics. We then discovered that responsibility was only required of the bubble players, not guys on whom the team was going to depend. That's fine in the world of the NFL where finding responsible players is the harder task. But it points out Zygi's either absolute naivete about the world of the NFL or Zygi's belief that Minnesota fans will eat whatever crap he ladles out.

Upon his arrival in town, Zygi also noted his high expectations for a team that he believed had the pieces in place to contend. Yet today, with few notable players gone from the team that Zygi inherited, and players like Steve Hutchinson, Cedric Griffin, Chad Greenway, Chester Taylor, Ben Leber, and Ryan Longwell, Zygi is pointing to a two to three year plan for returning the team to respectability. Either Zygi is providing cover for Childress' dismal results in 2006 against one of the weakest schedules in the NFL, or Zygi is blinded to the team's real issues.

Zygi is now contending that the Vikings plan to rebuild through the draft. While this is a laudable goal, it is also stating the obvious. As discussed on this site several times this off-season, the current NFL cap structure will make it difficult for teams to build through free-agency for the foreseeable future. With fewer free agents and more cap space, premium players will be re-signed or tagged and the few top-flight free agents who hit the market will command a king's ransom. These factors will conspire to force teams to look to the draft to fill holes for the next two or three years, at a minimum.

All of which begs a pertinent question. If the Vikings, over the next two to three years, are only going to do what every other team is already doing in the NFL, how will the Vikings overtake the twenty-five teams currently ahead of them? A quick look at the roster suggests that Zygi's two- to three-year plan might be more realistically stated as a ten- to twelve-year plan.

Of the players currently under contract, several either will be gone or long in the tooth, by NFL standards, in three years. Those players include center Matt Birk, safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Antoine Winfield, and defensive tackle Pat Williams. It's one thing to fill holes through the draft. It's another to fill holes currently filled by Pro-Bowl caliber players. And that makes Zygi's two- to three-year plan as suspect as any of his previous plans.

In his defense, Zygi is stuck. He's stuck with a coach who has not been able to deliver the kick ass offense that he promised. He's stuck with a team bereft of a starting quarterback. He's stuck with a team absent a number one receiver. He's stuck with a team left relying on a personnel manager that no other team in the NFL would touch. And, in short, he's stuck with the decisions that he made when he inherited the team, but now in an era where correcting those mistakes suddenly became a much taller task.

And he wants Vikings' fans to be patient for more of the same. Even Lurtsy's not buyin' this Purple pitch.

Up Next: Is Peterson the Best Option? Plus, does a three-year plan require trading down?

Thursday, March 22, 2007


In a rare interview, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress acknowledged today not only that the Vikings had made a hard push to sign mediocre wide-receiver Kevin Curtis, but also that Curtis rejected the Vikings' offer to take less money in favor of playing for the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Kevin just wanted to play for Philadelphia." Childress lamented.

But Childress is only acknowledging half of the truth. While it is probably to the Vikings' advantage that Curtis and his 400 receiving yards opted for the Eagles, the reason that Curtis went to Philadelphia had as much to do with his desire not to sign with Minnesota as it did to sign with Philly.

When Curtis first began making his free agent visits, he had two teams on his list--Minnesota and St. Louis. After a brief trip to Minnesota, that, we are now told, included a contract offer from the Vikings, Curtis hopped on a plane purportedly hoping to sign with the Lions where he would be reunited with former head coach turned offensive coordinator Mike Martz. When the Lions' deal failed to materialize, Curtis fired his agent.

Interestingly, Curtis did not return to Minnesota. Instead, he flew to New York to meet with Giants' officials. After hiring new agents, he flew to Philadelphia and signed with the Eagles.

What is clear from how the process played out, and from the ancillary comments that Childress offered today, is that Curtis signed with Philadelphia in spite of his offer from Minnesota--not because he was set on playing for the Eagles from the outset. That Curtis opted for a lesser deals with the Eagles also says quite a bit about impressions of Childress' offense as it respects receivers.

Up Next: More on Childress' comments. Plus, more draft discussion--considering the Vikings' dream draft. And, how the Vikings can be great as soon as 2007.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Drafting for Need and Ability

A draft-day rule of thumb to which most NFL teams adhere is that when drafting in the top ten, you take the best player available. The logic behind the guideline is that, because players taken in the top ten generally command substantial signing bonuses, it is easier for the drafting team to avoid a colossal failure selecting a widely regarded player rather than a player less highly regarded merely because that player fits a need. Moreover, teams that select in the top ten of the draft generally have enough holes to fill that taking the best available player is usually anything but a risk.

As the Minnesota Vikings approach the 2007 draft, two years removed from a 9-7 finish and with arguably more talent on the roster than was on the roster at the end of 2005, they appear to fit the mode of teams that generally select in the top ten of the NFL draft. With needs at virtually every position, the Vikings indeed ought to take the best available player if they retain their number seven overall pick.

Most analysts have the following players somewhere in their list of top ten available players in the 2007 NFL draft: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Joe Thomas, Gaines Adams, Alan Branch, LaRon Landry, Jamaal Anderson, and Amobi Akoye. With limited need at either safety or defensive tackle, the Vikings probably are not considering drafting either Landry or Branch. But, even with those two removed from the list, there are still eight players left for seven teams through Minnesota's seventh selection spot in the draft. And it is with that in mind that I consider the Vikings' draft for 2007.

Shaking Out The Draft

For the past month, Vikings' coaches and personnel people have made it clear that they have an interest in Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. With the Raiders in desperate need of a quarterback and clearly pleased with the workouts that they have seen from Russell, it is unlikely that they will pass on Russell. And with Tampa Bay searching for a long-term solution at quarterback--presumably with Chris Simms out of the picture and Jeff Garcia meant as a short-term tutor--the Bucs might opt for Quinn with the number four overall pick.

The Vikings also have several holes along the offensive line and have expressed an interest in Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas. The problem with any Vikings' plans to select Thomas is two-fold, however. First, Thomas is coveted by virtually every other team at the top of the draft. If the Raiders were not so desperate at quarterback, they would probably even consider taking Thomas number one overall--even with Robert Gallery having yet to pan out.

The second problem that the Vikings would face if they drafted Thomas is that they already have committed a substantial amount of cap room to left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Though Thomas has played other positions--including defensive end--he is primarily a left tackle. And the Vikings might be wary of attempting to move another lineman from his trained position given the failed attempts to make such moves under former head coach Mike Tice two season ago. Having McKinnie and Thomas thus would be redundant--unless the Vikings elected to release McKinnie.

Even if the Vikings had plans in place for using Thomas, however, it is unlikely that Thomas will be available when the Vikings draft. Assuming Russell and Quinn go to Oakland and Tampa Bay, respectively, the Lions, Browns, and Cardinals are all in desperate need of an offensive tackle. One of the three is nearly certain to take Thomas.

With Thomas off the board, and given Childress' commitment to building from the line back on both sides of the ball, the most logical player for the Vikings to target next would be Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams. Adams has been projected as going anywhere from second to somewhere just outside the top ten, though his ability suggests a certain top-ten selection. Because Matt Millen probably will make the wrong pick--no matter who he selects--and because defensive end is the Lions' third or fourth issue entering the draft, odds are at least even that the Lions will take Adams with the number two pick. That would be fine with the rest of the league, as it would ensure that Adams is a bust in the NFL, but if Detroit were to pass it would be as sure a sign of probable ability. Assuming that Detroit does pass on Adams, however, Washington, desperate to add muscle to a weak pass rush, almost certainly will not.

With the top linemen on each side of the ball likely off the board when the Vikings draft the team might look to Arkansas junior defensive end Jamaal Anderson. That would be a mistake. Anderson probably will be available when the Vikings draft, but, even with a strong junior season at Arkansas, he probably will not contribute much as a rookie in the NFL given what scouts have generously referred to as "raw talent." The Vikings don't need raw talent selecting at number seven, they've gone that route before. What the Vikings need is a player who can start and make an impact immediately.

If the team deems Anderson too great of a risk, they could be left with few options from among their top ten when selecting at number seven. Assuming Thomas, Russell, Quinn, and Adams are selected ahead of the seventh pick, and that the Vikings have no interest in Landry, Branch, or Anderson, the team will be left hoping that Calvin Johnson somehow falls to number seven. That probably won't happen, but it could happen if every team ahead of Minnesota takes the best available player that most fits their needs. And the continuing rise of Quinn's draft value might just make that a reality.

If each team drafts the best player available that fits a team need, the draft would follow the following sequence: Oakland would select Russell or Quinn, Detroit would select Thomas, Cleveland would select Adrian Peterson, Tampa Bay would select Russell or Quinn, whomever the Raiders elected not to draft, the Cardinals would select Adams or Branch, and Washington would select Adams or Branch, whomever the Cardinals did not select.

The near-certainties not to take Johnson are Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Arizona, and Washington. Oakland has receiver issues, but much more pressing issues at quarterback, along the offensive line, and at running back. Detroit has a history of taking wide receivers early, but Matt Millen not only cannot afford taking another receiver high, the team also is not in need of another wide receiver. Cleveland could use a clear number one receiver, but they more desperately need at running back, along the offensive line, and along the defensive line. Arizona has no need for receivers with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in the mix. And Washington has so many problems that taking a wide-receiver near the top of the draft would lead to mutiny among the teams' followers--and possibly among the current players. Only Tampa Bay has a need at receiver that merits taking Johnson over other players that will be available to them in the draft. It will be a tough call for Tampa Bay.

Up Next: Why Passing On Johnson Might Be Best For Minnesota. Plus, already polishing spin.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Trading Up To Take Johnson Would Be A Mistake

With Draft Day 2007 fast approaching, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in virtually the same position in which they found themselves at this time last year. The question for the organization is whether they retain their seventh overall slot or attempt to trade up or down.

Last season, the Vikings turned in one of their better draft performances in recent memory, selecting two legitimate starters in Chad Greenway and Cedric Griffin, and another possible starter in 2007 in defensive back Greg Blue. Even if Tarvaris Jackson and Ryan Cook fail to pan out, that's still a nice return for a draft. And it's a far cry better than who the Vikings' drafted in 2005, selecting, in order, Troy Williamson, Erasmus James, Marcus Johnson, Dustin Fox, Ciatric Fason, C.J. Mosley, and Adrian Ward.

Still, with two of the three architects of the 2005 draft--Scott Studwell and Rob Brzezinski--still part of the draft-day decision making team, and with the widely disregarded Rick Spielman added to the mix, there's every reason to wonder whether last year's draft was an aberration. With holes at nearly every position, it would be difficult for the Vikings not to follow up their 2006 draft success with another successful draft, but the team's success in the draft hinges on making critical pre-draft decisions, and that might be too much to ask of this organization at this time. Still, we can hope.


Of the primary and general draft options that the Vikings purportedly are mulling--staying put, trading up, or trading down--two make sense, while the other seems too fraught with peril to undertake. While staying put should land the Vikings a bona fide starter for 2007, trading down could land the team a bona fide starter in 2007 and another player or two who will contribute as a starter shortly after the 2007 season begins. Only trading up, which would cost the Vikings draft picks that they desperately need in this era of limited quality free agents and high salary cap figures, makes little sense.

Presumbaly, the Vikings would be interested in trading up only if they could be assured of selecting wide receiver Calvin Johnson. That might be a stretch given that virtually every NFL team has shown an interest in Johnson. Even if it is a possibility, however, it appears to be an unwise move for Minnesota. A cursory review of the success of first-round wide receiver selections in the past five years suggests that taking Johnson would be a risk in general terms. But even looking at Johnson as a discrete entity, rather than as part of a sample of receivers, raises concerns over drafting him with a top-five pick.

Assuming Johnson is the next Randy Moss or anything close, and that he is prepared to contribute mightily for a team that mightily needs a major contribution from a wide receiver in 2007, by drafting Johnson in the top five of the draft, the Vikings likely would be committing $20-25 million in salary cap space over the next three years to a player who plays wide receiver. I've made the point elsewhere, but it bears repeating. Receivers are only worth that kind of money if the team that has that receiver already has a solid offensive line to block pass rushers, a solid running game, and, of course, a quarterback that can be counted on to get that receiver the ball. As of today, the Vikings lack at least two, if not all three, of those components.

Even if the Vikings had the prerequisites for paying lavishly for a receiver, they would still need to be certain that they had the money to keep their defense together and meet the increasing salary demands of players already under contract. That's true no matter who the Vikings select in the 2007 draft. But, unlike receiver, at most other positions, players can show their merit through their individual play. Success at receiver is much more dependent on every other aspect of the game operating well.

The Vikings have too many holes to fill in 2007, and too many holes at critical positions, to waste draft picks trading up for a receiver who could be the next Moss but who also could be the next Peter Warrick or Charles Rogers. Nobody is a sure bet in the draft, but there is something to be said for committing draft dollars to positions that are the foundation of the team rather than to the glamour position that relies on the foundation being set. And there is something to be said for stocking high-round draft picks in an era in which the draft is critical to building a solid team.

Up Next: Staying Put? Plus, Mossy Bay?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Free Agent Needs Need Needy

The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2007 free agency period in need of two or three wide receivers, a quarterback--backup or starting, a defensive end, a right offensive tackle, a right offensive guard, a backup linebacker, and a backup safety. The Vikings quickly added to their list of needs at receiving tight end when they released tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

In the weeks that have followed the beginning of the 2007 free agency period, Minnesota has addressed its team needs by signing a number three wide receiver Bobby Wade, blocking tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and a special teams player with aspirations of playing middle linebacker, Vinny Ciurciu.

Despite a near complete lack of competition for any of the three agents that they have signed to date, the Vikings paid between $10-11 million in guaranteed signing bonuses to secure the rights to the trio. The bulk of that went to Shiancoe, making him the one player that must produce for cap purposes. That might seem like a safe bet to most Vikings' fans, but one has to wonder whether there were and/or are better options.

What's Left

With most of their 2006 holes still vacant as the first round of free agency nears an end, the Vikings remain in position to add some players. Unfortunately, the best of the remaining players play positions that the Vikings either have filled or appear uninterested in addressing any further.

At defensive end, the Vikings still have some options in free agency, and options that might be better than their initial target, Patrick Kerney. Last week, Seattle cut defensive end Grant Wistrom, just two years after signing him to a big free-agent contract that left most wondering if they had overspent. Seattle signed Wistrom just as Minnesota appeared on the verge of inking him to a deal. Though Wistrom's numbers are not glowing, his five sacks in 2006 are five more than Vikings' starting defensive end Kenechi Udeze had last season. If the price is right, Wistrom could be a worthwhile addition.

A more enticing free agent defensive end is Cincinnati Bengal Justin Smith, who completed the 2006 season with 7.5 sacks and 87 tackles--an astounding number for a defensive end. Unfortunately, Smith probably will not be going anywhere this year as the Bengals have franchised him. That could be good news for Minnesota in next year's free agency, but, barring a trade, it does little for them this year.

The options are even more dire at receiver, though there are players available who look a bit more attractive than the players currently under contract in Minnesota. The two most notable players are Dallas Cowboy free agent Patrick Crayton (36/516/14.3/4) and Kansas City Chief free agent Samie Parker (41/561/13.7/1). Crayton is an unrestricted free agent while Parker is a restricted free agent. They don't look great, but they should be cheap and they both are young.

The fact that Todd Steussie re-signed with the Rams tells you what you need to know about the free agent market for tackles. Despite their need for a right tackle, the Vikings will either have to find someone in the draft, wait for June 1st cuts and hope to uncover someone else's luxury, or go with Marcus Johnson. The odds suggest Johnson gets another opportunity, whether he deserves it or not.

At guard, the Vikings have a position that they should be able to address through free agency. Why the team has not yet done so is anyone's guess. Among the available free agent guards are 2006 Pro-Bowler Ruben Brown, an unrestricted free agent, Ross Verba, Adam Timmerman, and Chris Villarrial, along with three former Vikings, one current Viking, and one former Viking who somebody, for some reason, wanted. Timmerman and Villarrial are getting a bit long in the tooth and might be too slow for the system that Childress' runs in Minnesota, but they would provide stability at a position that has long lacked such a guiding force.

Bottom Line

If you thought the free agent market was grim three weeks ago, it's worse now. But that doesn't mean it's hopeless. It just means that teams like Minnesota will have to do a bit of due diligence. Last year, the Vikings added Ben Leber, Chester Taylor, and Dwight Smith in a free agent market with much more talent. This year, some talent remains that can fill one or two of the numerous holes remaining on the Vikings' roster. Whether that happens largely will be a function of the team's commitment to improving.

Up Next: Draft Talk. Many options.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

We Got 'Em

In a previous post, I suggested that there are times, such as this season, when it behooves NFL teams to get into bidding contests for the few decent players on the market in the hope of at least filling one hole for one season. The Vikings have glaring holes at wide receiver, tight end, defensive end, offensive line, and, at a minimum, backup quarterback.

To address these holes, the Vikings released the tight end that has made the most positive difference to their offense over the past three seasons, released their only red zone receiving threat (something the team opted to do before the season was over), and opted not to compete for players being wooed by other teams.

The first bad omen of a weak off-season struck when the Vikings announced their replacement for pass-receiving tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Vikings' player personnel director, Rick Spielman, himself a story for another day, commented that the Vikings got the man they wanted to replace Wiggins when they signed Visanthe Shiancoe. Yes, that Visanthe Shiancoe.

What did the Vikings get in Shiancoe? It sounds like the complete package--if by package is meant something other than a pass-catching tight end. Here's what Vikings' head coach Brad Childress had to say about his newest addition:

"He's well-rounded. He can play on the line of scrimmage. He can play away from the tackle. He can block. And I think he can catch. So he gives you a little bit of everything."

Those critical of Childress' maneuverings that resulted in the release of a tight end with nearly 200 receptions over the past three years in favor of a tight end with 35 receptions over four seasons, including 12 receptions for 81 yards in seventeen games last season, are missing the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that a guy who plays well on the line and off the tackle is more of an asset in Childress' offensive system than a guy who catches the ball. And, at $18.2 million over five years with $7 million guaranteed, Shiancoe is a bargain to boot, we are told. One has to squint, of course, to see that bargain given that the Vikings would have owed Wiggins considerably less money in 2007.

Sure to add to the groundswell of support for Shiancoe is Spielman's observation that the tight end runs the 40 in 4.58. As Vikings' fans can attest, speed gets you speed in the NFL. And that might not be enough for Shiancoe.

On the same day that the Vikings signed Shiancoe, they added linebacker Vinny Ciuciu, a four-year special teams player whom they believe might be able to compete for the middle linebacker position. Ciuciu, who signed for $3 million over three years with a $500,000 signing bonus, last played linebacker as a collegian at Boston College.

The final addition to the Vikings' current free agent class of 2007 is former Chicago Bear and Tennessee Titan wide receiver Bobby Wade, whom the Vikings' signed yesterday to a five-year, $15 million deal. Wade's 33 receptions last season, give the Vikings' current top three wide receivers a combined 93 receptions and four touchdowns in 2006--less than the reception totals of three wide receivers and less than the touchdown totals of forty-one receivers in 2006.

Where Do The Vikings Go From Here?

Though much of the Vikings' off-season signing futility is attributable to the dearth of talent in this year's free agency pool, there were players available in free agency in whom the Vikings had an interest but whom the team elected not to pursue. And there are players still available that might fit the teams needs, such as Corey Dillon, Travis Henry, Eric Moulds, and Ross Verba.

With the exception of a few remaining free agents, and some possible June 1st cuts, the Vikings would be well served not simply to sit on their money this year, losing a year of use in the process. If not used for free agents, the money should be used to restructure contracts to bring forward cap hits into the present. This would allow the team even more cap space in the future and provide the team an opportunity to identify and sign to long-term deals players in whom the team would like to make a long-term commitment.

Up next: More free agency. Plus, draft talk and division rivals.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Time to Spend--But Is Anybody Taking?

By releasing four players last week, the Minnesota Vikings padded their already ample salary cap space boosting their largesse to roughly $30 million. Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, that's not enough money to compete with what other teams have to offer--similar amounts of money and indications that their talent will be used properly by the head coach.

With Jermaine Wiggins headed elsewhere and Travis Taylor likely soon to follow him out the door, the Vikings are left with only two receivers under contract next season, Troy Williamson and Billy McMullen. In 2006, Williamson and McMullen combined for 60 receptions, nearly as many dropped passes, and a paltry two touchdowns.

To fill their glaring holes at wide receiver, the Vikings targeted three free-agent receivers, Ashlie Lelie, Drew Bennett, and Kevin Curtis. Fortunately for the Vikings, the malcontented, underwhelming Lelie was taken off the market by San Francisco, saving the Vikings from themselves. Bennett, a Travis Taylor-esque receiver who would have upgraded the Vikings' receiving corps only because you can't really downgrade from Williamson and McMullen, was also signed, by St. Louis, before even visiting Minnesota. That left Curtis.

After a trip to Minnesota on Saturday to visit with Minnesota's coaching staff, Curtis swiftly boarded a flight for Detroit, presumably to escape the clutches of a coaching staff promising 40-50 touches on two to three yard passes in favor of a coach who runs a professional level offense. Curtis' departure leaves virtually no free agent wide receivers worth even considering at the moment.

Time to Switch Gears

Given the paucity of receivers on the free agent market, and the desperation among several teams to land any receiver, as desperate as the Vikings are at receiver, they would be better off focusing their attention elsewhere during this free agency period and hoping that a receiver turns up in the draft and in the post June 1st cuts period.

The Vikings have suggested that they will not get into a bidding war for any players this season, but that would be a foolish move given that there are players on the market who fit the Vikings' needs and would be an asset in 2007, even if overpaid.

The current economics of the NFL virtually require teams with any meaningful cap space to overpay for players in this year's free agency pool. That fact is based on three other facts--one, the free agency pool is thin; two, salary cap room is large for many teams due to the enormous profits that the NFL has reaped the past several seasons; and three, teams can use lean free agency years to make one-time payouts to one or two key players that will help the squad for the long haul, without undermining their salary cap structure.

As an example of the dictates of the NFL's current economic structure and how it affects a team like Minnesota with $30 million in cap space, it is instructive to consider a free agent such as defensive end Patrick Kerney. Regarded as a good pass rusher nearing the downside of his career but with legs left in him, Kerney is a valued commodity in this year's free-agency pool because he is the sole legitimate defensive end on the market. That means more teams will be willing to pay more money to sign him. Ergo, if the Vikings want Kerney, they will have to pay up. The consensus is that Kerney will sign for around $5-7 million per season with a four year deal valued at around $30-35 million, with bonuses.

That sounds like a big hit for a team to take to fill a hole for two or three years--assuming that Kerney doesn't really have four years left in him and that the team would void the fourth, maybe even the third year of the deal. That's the kind of logic, however, that keeps mediocre teams mediocre in a weak free agent market.

A $35 million, four-year deal for Kerney would cost the Vikings just under $9 million a season, assuming that the terms of the deal included only annual salary and a signing bonus. That would be a bad signing for Minnesota as it would cost the team $27 million after 2007 and, if Kerney did not work out, the team would not only have to find a replacement for Kerney but it would also be on the hook for salary cap purposes for whatever pro-rated bonus remained.

With considerable cap room in 2007, however, the Vikings could make a $35 million deal with Kerney entirely palatable, by offering the bulk of the money in guaranteed money in 2007. Giving Kerney $14 million as a roster bonus in 2007 would give Kerney immediate financial security, making the offer one that would be difficult to refuse, and leave $21 million to spread out over the four years of the contract--five if the Vikings so chose as Kerney probably wouldn't quibble given the $14 in guaranteed money in 2007.

The effect of giving Kerney a roster bonus of $14 million versus a signing bonus would be monumental. Any signing bonus would remain on the books beyond 2007. The roster bonus, meanwhile, would come off the books after 2007, leaving only an insignificant salary cap hit should the Vikings elect to part ways with Kerney after 2007, before his contract expired.

Whether it's Kerney or some other player, the Vikings are best served spending money this year and paying off the debt on the signing this year. That's because, with the considerable amount of money that the NFL continues to reel in, teams are increasingly likely to have money to spend on free agency and to have money to spend to retain key players, either through franchising or through long-term deals. In the past, these moves were anathema to sound cap management. Today, and until cap increases show signs of slowing, the reverse is true.

The premium, of course, is on signing quality players to fill key needs. Bad players signed at high prices will still garner bragging rights only in Detroit.

Two Players to Consider Signing Yesterday

With Kerney providing one free agent that would serve a Vikings' need in 2007, two other recent additions to the free agent market could like very nice wearing Vikings' purple next year.

Last week, New England running back Corey Dillon asked for and was given his release by the Patriots. Slated for the backup role behind 2006 first-round pick and emerging star Laurence Maroney, Dillon wants a chance to earn a pay day before there are none left for him to earn. With Chester Taylor slated as the number one back in a two-man system in need of someone with Dillon's abilities, the opportunity would be there for Dillon to seize. Only Dillon's injury history, and the running back discussed below, should deter the Vikings.

An even more appealing running back is the younger, healthier Travis Henry, whom the Tennessee Titans cut on Saturday for salary cap reasons. A virtual non-entity at the start of the 2006 season, Henry became a fantasy stud and key cog to the Titan's offense for much of 2006. Frustrating for his occassional down game, Henry is still a great runner with loads of ability. His speed would be a nice change of pace in tandem with the more, up-the-gut running approach of Taylor.

From the "How to Boost Eli Manning's Morale" File

Washington has signed former Vikings' purported cornerback Fred Smoot to a five-year deal, raising concerns in Washington that Snyder is readying to re-establish his authority over the team. As bad as it's been under Joe Gibbs in recent years, this cannot be good news for Washington's fans. Enjoy the burn, Mr. Snyder.

Up Next: More free agency, including signings. Plus, sizing up the draft.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cleaning House

After the 2005 Lake Minnetonka boat episode involving several Minnesota Vikings' football players, new Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf promised to clean house. We now know what Zygi intended with that comment, namely, that the team would get rid of anyone who is a bad citizen--as long as they also happen to perform poorly on the field.

Prominent among the Vikings' Lake Minnetonka activists were Moe Williams, Daunte Culpepper, Fred Smoot, Mewelde Moore, and Bryant McKinnie. After Thursday's cuts--which included Fred Smoot, Jermaine Wiggins, and Mike Rosenthal--only Moore and McKinnie are left standing. And, given head coach Brad Childress' inexplicable perception that Moore is not capable of producing on the field, it might be only a matter of time until the woefully overvalued McKinnie is the sole survivor of the boating purge. That says nothing about McKinnie as a steward and probably everything about the difficulty of finding even remotely capable left tackles.

Thursday's Cuts

Of the Vikings' cuts on Thursday, none are surprising, though Wiggins' release is unfortunate. Smoot was little more than a spinning top spectator last season, starting back ten to twenty yards in man coverage and routinely stepping aside to let far slower receivers earn a living. Against speedier competition, Smoot left Vikings' fans longing for the Waswa Serwanga year.

Like Smoot, Rosenthal had a thoroughly forgettable 2006. Unfortunately for Rosenthal, and Vikings' fans, Rosenthal's forgettable 2006 season came directly on the heels of a miserable 2005 and a putrid 2004 season. If ever Rosenthal had gas in the tank at the NFL level, it ran out well before he arrived in Minnesota. Your favorite Rosenthal highlight? Take your pick from among many false starts or holding calls in critical situations.

Unlike Smoot and Rosenthal, Wiggins was a victim of circumstance in 2006. Smoot defenders contend that former defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's system doomed Smoot because it required Smoot to play tight on players whereas he is more comfortable in a zone, pick-up scheme. That might be true, but that certainly begs the definition of "more comfortable." Smoot looked equally lost in Ted Cottrell's do-as-you-please system as he did in Tomlin's system.

Wiggins, meanwhile, was wonderfully successful as a receiver in his first two seasons in Minnesota, leading the team with 140 receptions. Last year, under Childress' plodding, predictable, boring, and disastrous offensive system--for lack of a better word--Wiggins had a mere 46 receptions, 24 below his average as a Viking.

Was that Wiggins' fault or the fault of the system? You judge. With 46 receptions in 2006, Wiggins tied for second on the team in receptions, 11 behind team leader Travis Taylor. To put those numbers in perspective, Detroit's Kevin Furrey finished the season with 98 receptions.

With Wiggins gone, the Vikings reportedly have their sights set on New England free agent tight end Daniel Graham. If you're in the camp that thinks that's an upgrade at receiver, think again. Despite catching passes from Tom Brady and being the beneficiary of a tight end-friendly offense, Graham has done anything but flourish as a receiver in New England.

While it is true that New England's reliance on other tight ends in the passing game cuts down on Graham's touches, it's still difficult to see how Graham would be more of a pass-catching asset than Wiggins. In five years in the league, Graham has averaged 24 receptions per season, never posting more than the 38 that he posted in his second season in the league. Last year, in 12 games, Graham had a mere 21 receptions.

Graham might be capable of playing the entire game as a blocking tight end with the ability to contribute as a receiver in a pinch. And that might make Jim Kleinsasser more expendable than he already is--if that's possible. But anyone who looks at Graham as a solution to the Vikings' true offensive problems isn't looking hard enough. And if that doesn't dampen your enthusiasm over Graham's potential addition to the squad, perhaps the fact that Childress appears utterly enamored with Graham will.

It's unfortunate that Childress could not see what a receiving asset he had in Wiggins. It might be even more unfortunate, however, that his solution to the perceived hole at receiving tight end is a tight end who has never flourished in a well-run offense.

Up Next: Free Agency Begins, Draft Looms. Plus, Frozen Moss?