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.