Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bringing O-Line Back to the Future

With between $25-30 million in cap space still available under the NFL salary cap guidelines, and a need to spend between $9-14 million to reach the NFL salary cap floor, the Minnesota Vikings are left with two options. The first is to sign free agents that meet pressing needs. The second is to spend forward. Of the two options, the Vikings appear headed for the second.

Free Agents Wanted

The Vikings still have pressing needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver, cornerback, and quarterback and could be waiting for veterans on other teams to receive their walking papers before moving in.

Along the offensive line, the Vikings have as many questions as they appear to have answers. The most obvious concerns are at right guard and right tackle where the Vikings will enter the season with Artis Hicks and Ryan Cook as starters. Hicks, a veteran, played like a rookie last season and appears ill-suited to playing guard in the NFL. Cook, a rookie last season, played like a rookie. Without measurable improvement from Hicks and Cook, the Vikings will continue to be a left-favoring team and that will continue to put pressure on a team that now must rely on a rookie quarterback to do what an immobile veteran could not do last season.

In addition to the concerns on the right side of the offensive line, the Vikings will continue to hold their breath that center Matt Birk does not suffer a reoccurence of his groin injuries and that Bryant McKinnie matures into the left tackle that the team believes he currently is.

During the off-season, the Vikings made an attempt to rectify their wide-receiver issues by signing underwhelming journeyman Bobby Wade and selecting several wide-receivers in the draft, at least two of which are considered likely to stick in the NFL. The team also sent 2005 draft pick Troy Williamson to Beaverton, Oregon to work with Nike experts on hand-eye coordination.

Even if the Williamson efforts pan out, the Vikings remain a team loaded with inexperienced and journeyman-caliber talent at wide-receiver. With the decision to release Marcus Robinson at the end of last season and not to bring back Travis Taylor or Jermainne Wiggins this year, Wade becomes the most experienced receiver on the Vikings' squad. If the rookies deliver, the Vikings will breath a sigh of relief. If not, look for more of the same from the Vikings' offense in 2007 with the lone hope being that Adrian Peterson's presence will off-set short-comings elsewhere.

At quarterback, the Vikings are still without an experienced quarterback at one, two, or three. It's one thing to begin the season with a rookie quarterback at the helm. It's quite another to do the same without an experienced veterant to spell the rookie if things go too far south too quickly. Relying on Bollinger, Thigpen, or Henson to step in to fill the role of experienced veteran probably is asking more than any team should ask.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings are relatively set. Counting on their defensive ends simply to perform better than they have in the past, the Vikings clearly could use help at end, but the market for defensive ends virtually begins and ends with the draft. At this point in the season, therefore, the Vikings probably will have to make do with what they have at end.

Other than needing backups in the middle of the defensive line, the rest of the defense appears ready at every position except nickel and dime corner. And that could be a critical short-coming for a Vikings' defense that looks to use more secondary blitz packages under new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in a league in which defenses must typically line up in nickel and dime packages to match three-wide-reciever sets.
This is a position that the Vikings must address before the season begins and there should be some relatively inexpensive options from among the pre-season cuts.

Future Spending Today

Given the unlikelihood of finding among the pre-season cuts more than one of the players that the team needs to fill its most pressing needs, and with cap to spend, the Vikings might be best served simply setting the team up for next season by bringing salary forward and relieving the team of cap burden in 2008 and beyond.

The two most evident ways to bring salary forward are to sign young players this year under contracts that include front-loaded roster bonuses rather than signing bonuses and to re-write existing contracts to bring onerous bonuses forward. Given the Vikings' current contracts, the latter appears the more logical and appealing approach.

With two players receiving nearly $30 million in guaranteed salary over the next six seasons, the Vikings are in position to add $5 million in cap space each of the next six seasons simply by converting Bryant McKinnie's and Steve Hutchinson's salary bonuses to roster bonuses in 2007. That money could contribute immensely to the team's future pursuit of a player or two to fill the large holes that the Vikings, very shortly, will need to fill at defensive tackle, center, and defensive end.

With 2007 looking less like a contending year and more like the re-building season that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf has called it, bring cap forward makes considerable sense for the Vikings.

Up Next: Caponomics Issues. Plus, around the NFC North.

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