Friday, February 29, 2008

Vikings' 2008 Free-Agency Maneuverings Commence

Like most NFL teams eager to make free-agency moves in an era in which most teams are flush with cap room, the Minnesota Vikings moved quickly to bring players into town that fit pressing team needs. Among those who have visited or who reportedly are scheduled to visit are Cincinnati Bengals' safety Madieu Williams, Chicago Bears' wide-receiver Bernard Berrian, Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith, and Houston quarterback Sage Rosenfels.

As of this posting, the Vikings appear to have locked up one of their free-agent targets, reportedly having agreed to contract terms with Williams. Though not an elite safety, Williams is regarded as a player with considerable upside and should do no worse on the field for the Vikings than did Dwight Smith in 2007. And, though he arrives from Cincinnati, indications are that he also can be expected to conduct himself more responsibily off the field. Both indicators bode well for a Vikings' secondard in dire need of a bona fide starter unencumbered by off-field baggage that in any way portends possible league or team sanctions.

The questions regarding Williams are two-fold. The first is whether Williams can stay on the field. Williams has missed games due to injury in three of his four seasons in the NFL, costing him twelve games in 2005 and three games last season.

Given Williams' injury history, it is fair to wonder whether the terms of his contract, a six-year, $34 million deal that makes Williams one of the highest paid safeties in the NFL, is worth the gamble, particularly with other higher-caliber and nearly-as-good-as-but-less-costly safeties still on the market. There is also the nagging concern that Williams helped anchor one of the single worst defenses in NFL history.

The Vikings are also believed to be in ardent negotiations with Berrian on the terms of a multi-year contract. As one of the few wide-receivers on the free-agent market capable of claiming both speed and potential, Berrian, too, will command a high salary, and one that probably will dwarf that given Williams.

In addition to the high salary that he is likely to command and the fact that such a commitment runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that teams ought not commit substantial chunks of salary cap space to the receiver position, Berrian carries with him the stigma of dropping far too many catchable passes. That makes Minnesota, a team that just jettisoned an unsure-handed, speedy receiver, and odd choice for Berrian. And that likely means that Minnesota will really have to overpay to obtain Berrian.

The Vikings' moves to add Williams and the team's push for Berrian point to the legitimate concerns within the Vikings' front office that the team cannot settle for the Visanthe Shiancoes of the world and that, if money is going to be spent--as it must be anyway under the league's salary cap rules--the team must get better value for the money than it received in free agency last year.

The moves also point to the team's recognition that the team has many holes to fill, not all of which can be filled by draft picks and June 1st scrap heap additions. If the moves can be made by placing the bulk of the salary-cap hit on the first two seasons, overpaying probably will not be a concern. If not, the Vikings might look back at the 2008 free-agency period as one in which they were compelled to act rashly. Such, however, is the plight of .500 teams struggling to improve in today's NFL.

Up Next: Richardson and Moore likely out. Plus, more free-agency news.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Imaginary Lover

Entering the 2007-2008 off-season, the Minnesota Vikings were certain of having to fill voids at wide-receiver, backup safety, and right offensive tackle. It now appears likely that the Vikings, either through their own volition or by edict of the NFL, will have another spot along the offensive line with which to concern themselves in the off-season even as left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie maneuvers through the highly forgiving Miami criminal court system.

Even before McKinnie's problems surfaced, however, the Vikings were facing a challenging off-season. The release of Dwight Smith has left the team without a starting free safety and possibly forced the team to pin its hopes on the oft-injured Tank Williams to form a tandem with the aging Darren Sharper. With only second-year player Eric Frampton remaining as a backup at the safety position, the Vikings suddenly have gone from having a shortage of safeties to having a dire need at safety--and that assumes that Williams returns and is healthy enough to start.

With a trade to fill the safety need an unlikely scenario, the Vikings are left to battle for the few capable starters likely to hit the free-agent market or to gamble on finding a starting safety in the NFL entry draft. Neither option is all that comforting for a team that struggled at the position last year even with capable talent.

Viable starting safeties will be hard to come by this year in free agency, not because there are no safeties slated for free agency, but because, as flush with salary cap room as most teams will be this off-season, teams that do have quality free agent safeties generally are going to keep those safeties off of the market.

The two most polished safeties on the market this off-season were Dallas' Ken Hamlin and the Giants' Gibril Wilson. Dallas has already franchised Hamlin and the Giants appear intent on securing the services of Wilson, with trade talks for cornerback DeAngelo Hall probably factoring into whether the Giants elect to franchise Wilson.

After Hamlin and Wilson, the talent pool for free-agent safeties drops a level. Down two or three levels from Hamlin and Wilson is a player in whom the Vikings might have both an interest and an ability to sign, restricted free agent Jim Leonhard of the Buffalo Bills.

In 13 games last season, Leonhard had 54 tackles and two interceptions--not outstanding numbers but respectable. Add to that the fact that Leonhard hales from the University of Wisconsin and the match is one nearly made in heaven for current Vikings' head coach Brad Childress.

There is, of course, a sticky wicket in obtaining Leonhard. First and foremost, Leonhard played well enough for Buffalo last season that the Bills would like to have him return in 2008. Then there is the issue of Leonhard's free-agent status. As a restricted free agent, Leonhard remains bound to the Bills as long as the Bills make a qualifying offer prior to free agency and make use of their subsequent right of first refusal.

Despite his restricted status, Leonhard is a uniquely appealing free-agent target, however, because any team signing Leonhard would not be required to give to Buffalo any compensation as a consequence of Leonhard being an undrafted member of the class of 2005. That puts the onus on the Bills to be prepared to pay considerably more to retain Leonhard than Leonhard earned in 2007. All of which means that, if the Vikings wish to sign Leonhard, they may well find themselves paying nearly as much for a lower level free-agent safety as far more capable starting safeties.

If the Vikings fail to land a safety in free agency, they likely will use either their first- or second-round pick in the entry draft on a safety. The only safety projected in the first round of the draft--and the only safety in the draft likely capable of starting in the NFL anytime in 2008--is Miami's Kenny Phillips. Selecting Phillips certainly would fill a need for the Vikings in 2008, but his selection likely would mean foregoing the selection of a starter at defensive end, offensive tackle, and wide receiver. And that might mean that, with new needs lurking around every corner, the Vikings might well find themselves without several precious needs in 2008.

Up Next: Free Agency Begins. Plus, for better of worse--Washington's changing leaves.

Monday, February 25, 2008

McKinnie's Miami Problems Could Be Just the Beginning for the Vikings

With the recent release of Vikings' free safety Dwight Smith and what now appears to be the certain release of Troy Williamson prior to the June 1st deadline for retroactive cap assignment of the pro-rated portion of Williamson's signing bonus, the Minnesota Vikings are gradually working their way toward the upper end NFL salary cap allotments. Should the Vikings follow-up their release of Smith by releasing or trading Williamson prior to June 1st, the team would add approximately $4 million to their available cap space in 2008. And, though that still would leave the Vikings well short of the cap space enjoyed by several other teams in the league, the additional cap space would at least afford the Vikings an opportunity to compete for free agents not targeted by winning programs.

Such leverage could not have come at a more propitious time for the franchise. In addition to Smith's release and Williamson's near-certain vanquishment, the Vikings were dealt another dose of reality yesterday when news circulated of another Viking player's run-in with the law.

Monday's early-morning arrest of Vikings' offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, the very real prospect of felony charges being leveled against McKinnie for his alleged beating of a Miami bouncer, and the NFL's increasingly tough public posturing in the face of players' criminal activities, could leave the Vikings searching for yet another starter for the 2008 season.

Should Miami prosecutors charge McKinnie with a felony, the NFL likely immediately would proceed to a review of McKinnie's status as a repeat-offender. Such a review likely would occur well in advance of any trial on the legal issues involved in McKinnie's case and, as well, likely would result in McKinnie receiving a minimum of an eight-game suspension at the beginning of the 2008 NFL season, with the possibility of full-year ban.

While McKinnie has had his difficulties manning the left side of the offensive line, frequently finding opposing ends elusive on the pass rush, he nevertheless would be a difficult presence to replace on such short notice. Worse yet, the loss of McKinnie for any extended period of time likely would give the Vikings' front office and coaching staff cause to explain away any offensive struggles that might arise in 2008.

Up Next: Mounting Concerns for the Vikings and Options for Addressing the Concerns.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Another Forty-Five Year Plan?

If the Minnesota Vikings did not already have plenty of off-season concerns, they do now. With the decision this week to release dunderheaded safety Dwight Smith and the on-going medical treatment of Kenechi Udeze, the Vikings now have two sizeable gaps to fill that they had not anticipated having had to fill when the off-season began. For the Vikings, that means not only filling additional holes, but probably diverting time and resources to scouring the ranks for players that already are in short supply in the NFL.

Entering the off-season, the Vikings considered both safety and defensive end priorities. The priorities were, however, to find players capable of backing up or supplanting Darren Sharper and Erasmus James. With Smith gone and Udeze likely out for the 2008 season, the Vikings now find themselves in need of two safeties and two defensive ends. And for Vikings' fans who have preached patience with the current coaching regime, the fact that such players will be more difficult to find than ever before will be a difficult pill to swallow.

The difficulties facing the Vikings are greater, of course, than the mere loss of a starting safety and a starting defensive end. For the Vikings, the losses represent chinks in the armor of what was to have been the team's constant heading into the 2008 season. Other than running back and possibly linebacker, the Vikings were as comfortable with Udeze and Smith as they were with starters at most other positions. That might have been a bit of a pollyanna assessment on the part of the Vikings, but it was an assessment that at least focused the team's attention on the more glaring needs of wide receiver, offensive line, receiving tight end, and James' defensive end position. Now the calculus has changed.

The alternative to replacing Smith with a new player is to find Smith's replacement from within. The most obvious choice would be to move Sharper back to his preferred free safety position and to move Mike Doss or Tank Williams to strong safety. With Doss out for the bulk of the 2007 season with an injury and unlikely to return to the Vikings in 2008, Williams appears the more likely in-house candidate to take over the strong safety duties should Sharper move to free safety--assuming the Vikings re-sign the oft-injured, soon-to-be free agent. Even that would still leave the Vikings precariously thin at a safety position for which the team will have an even greater need for proficiency in 2008 with the weakening of the defensive line. Still, finding a backup safety is an easier proposition than is finding a bona fide starter at the position.

The Vikings have a similar option at defensive end, though the options there are more limited given the poor play of former first-round bust Erasmus James. Third-year pro Ray Edwards has shown promise as a defensive end, but he's also playing with one league suspension already in his hip pocket for steroid abuse. That doesn't make him a risk on the field, but it does make him a risk should he again fail a league test and it might make the Vikings consider whether to ink Edwards in as a fixture at end.

Darrion Scott is another player who has shown some promise, if more limited, at defensive end. Unfortunately, like Edwards, Scott, too, is in the NFL's doghouse. And, unlike Edwards, Scott's positive test for marijuana use means that Scott is just one toke and test away from being out of options with Minnesota.

That leaves just Brian Robison as an option to which the Vikings reasonably could turn for help from within at defensive end in 2008. As promising as Robison looked at the beginning of the 2007 season, it is clear that, even if he progresses in 2008, the Vikings will need to look outward for help at defensive end. And that's not a very savory option.

The unfortunate part of all of this for long-suffering Vikings' fans is that one screwball player and one unfortunate medical case have put the Vikings where some of us predicted they would be if and when head coach Brad Childress' five-year plan for the offense finally materialized--only two seasons sooner. Rather than having a capable offense to pair with a strong defense, the Vikings will be hoping to have a near-capable offense to pair with a suddenly hurting defense. And if players like Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams begin to sustain injuries, that five-year plan could turn quickly into another 45-year plan.

Up Next: Free Agency. Plus, Snyder webs.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Keeping an Eye on Williamson

In a previous post, the point was made that financial considerations might compel the Minnesota Vikings to retain underwhelming wide-receiver Troy Williamson in 2008 rather than letting the receiver walk. Uncovered in that discussion was a consideration of timing.

The problem that the Vikings face, is that Williamson has approximately $7 million in pro-rated signing bonus that could accelerate to 2008 were the Vikings to release him this off-season. That salary cap hit, coupled with the even larger cap surpluses that numerous other NFL teams will have in 2008, would greatly diminish the Vikings' prospects of landing the free agents that the team needs heading into the 2008 season.

The Vikings do have a mulligan, however, if they elect to use it. Although the team's re-signing of Pat Williams in 2007 pushed the Vikings over the salary floor, and the team's extension of Anthony Herrera pushed the team closer to the salary cap, the Vikings still have approximately $10 million under their 2007 cap.

In most other discussions, an NFL team's previous year cap space would be irrelevant for discussions regarding the subsequent season. But, when dealing with players such as Williamson--players with relatively high pro-rated salary cap figures and disappointing on-field results--previous year cap numbers are highly salient.

For the Vikings, the greater debate than whether they wish to part ways with Williamson is when it would be best to do so. Unfortunately for the team, the one date that matters most for cap purposes is June 1st--unfortunate because, though that date comes after the NFL entry draft and after the initial free-agency period, it is a date common to all teams in the NFL.

If the Vikings cut Williamson prior to June 1st, the remainder of Williamson's pro-rated bonus will accelerate to the 2007 cap. With enough space left under the 2007 cap to absorb Williamson's remaining pro-rated bonus figure, the Vikings thus could rid themselves of Williamson's remaining cap figure without taking a hit to their 2008 cap figure.

The problem the Vikings face, however, is that it might not be until after June 1st that the team finds out what it has at wide receiver. If the Vikings are unable to sign a free agent, that probably would mean that, other than Williamson and any rookie additions, the team would enter camp without any speed at wide receiver.

The question mark at receiver could compel the Vikings to wait until after May 31st to make a final determination on what to do with Williamson, hoping that some other team will release a viable wide receiver. Assuming the Vikings opt for this route, identifying and signing a viable wide receiver after May 31st, Williamson would be expendable on the field, but he would count $7 million against the 2008 cap.

To give themselves flexibility on the Williamson matter, the Vikings would have to pare down their free agent wish list so that a post-May 31st release of Williamson would remain an option. And with approximately $20 million in cap room for 2008, that might leave the Vikings with too little money to compete for more than one bona fide free-agent starter in free agency.

Up Next: Washington's Mess. Plus, Vikings' options.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Financial Considerations Might Compel Vikings to Retain Williamson

In late Winter of 2005, the Minnesota Vikings cleaned house of the team's most expensive luxury, wide-receiver Randy Moss. On the verge of having a portion of his remaining contract guaranteed, Moss was a player that Red McCombs could not bear to keep even as the former Vikings' owner put the finishing language into his $625 million sale of the Vikings to current Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf.

The Vikings shipped Moss to the Oakland Raiders for middle linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Harris stuck with the Vikings for two seasons before departing to Kansas City as a free agent at the end of the 2006 season, finishing with one awful season and one decent season with the Vikings.

That left the Vikings with but one remaining commodity from the trade of the franchises' most talented offensive player, the team's seventh pick in the 2005 draft. After much anxiousness in the Vikings' draft room, and apparently too-little dissension, the Vikings used that seventh overall pick to select South Carolina wide-receiver Troy Williamson.

Despite limited catches for limited yardage in three seasons at South Carolina, the Vikings were high on Williamson due to what Vikings' scouts characterized as "blazing speed" at the NFL combines. Former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice excused Williamson's modest college numbers as the consequence of Williamson having played in a run-first offense under former Gamecocks head coach Lou Holtz. "Wait and see," Tice admonished the doubters. "Wait and see."

After waiting three seasons, Vikings' fans are no longer alone in their jaded assessment of the Vikings' former first-round draft pick.

In 2007, after undergoing corrective eye surgery and working with professionals at the Nike hand-eye coordination clinic, Williamson purportedly was ready to improve on what theretofore had been an abysmal start to what now seemed destined to be a short-lived NFL career.

For his part, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress cautioned skeptics of the wide-receiver by reminding them that many had had doubts about the Vikings' linebacking corps in 2006 and that that corps of players had rebounded for a poor showing in 2005, and several years back. Both Wilf and Childress commented often about the changes in Williamson's practice play with the most-oft heard line being that Williamson had 13,000 passes thrown to him during the off-season (no mention has ever been made of the resulting completion percentage).

If fan hopes were not exactly high heading into 2007, they nevertheless were being pushed toward optimism by the Vikings' head coach and owner. What followed, unfortunately, was more of the same old Williamson.

In 2007, Williamson recorded just 18 receptions for 240 yards and one touchdown. Both Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson, the back to whom the Vikings often refused to throw owing to unwarranted concerns about his ability to catch the ball, had more receptions than did Williamson.

Williamson's 2007 numbers boosted his three-year totals with the Vikings to 79 receptions for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns. That's one less touchdown than Vikings' rookie wide-receiver Sidney Rice recorded in limited action in 2007. And it points to why the hedging money is on the Vikings releasing Williamson this off-season.

Whether Williamson stays or goes, however, is not yet decided at Winter Park, though the inclination exists not only to show Williamson out, but also to offer a swift kick in the hopes of shaking loose some of the money that Williamson has stolen from the organization over the past three years.

The team's general sentiment was offered up best by fellow wide-receiver Bobby Wade at the end of last season. Responding to questions regarding Williamson's future with the Vikings, Wade suggested that Williamson might benefit from a change of scenery. On a team well-coached not to offer public responses to such questions, Wade's retort was telling.

The difficulty for the Vikings, however, is two-fold. One issue is that Williamson has a talent that cannot be taught--speed--while lacking a skill the lack of which is confounding to even the least skilled backyard streetballer--the inability to catch balls when unencumbered. Like Tarvaris Jackson's difficulties finding the proper balance between too much and too little air on deep passes, Williamson's inability to catch well-thrown passes when he is unhindered simply defies logic in the minds of observers. That makes his speed still beguiling, particularly on a team that lacks speed at wide-receiver.

While Williamson has been a certified first-round bust for the Vikings, there is another considerable factor that could mitigate in favor of the Vikings keeping the wide-receiver for at least one more year, namely, Williamson's seven-year (2005) contract that includes a $13 million bonus.

Even if the Vikings cut Williamson before his 2008 salary kicks in, the team would still be on the hook for a pro-rated portion of Williamson's 2005 signing bonus, a sum equal to approximately $7 million. With a league average of approximately $20 million in available cap space, releasing Williamson in 2008 would thus leave the Vikings with very little money with which to attract any meaningful free agents, both in actual and in relative terms.

Add to the cap concerns the fact that, despite his considerable short-comings, Williamson still possesses greater speed than do any of his wide-receiver teammates, and it might not only be cheaper for the Vikings to keep Williamson from a salary cap perspective, but also prudent to take a chance on a guy with speed and merely a need to overcome a nearly incomprehensible handicap.

With less than great hands, Williamson should still be a threat in the slot. That he has not been is largely the result of the Vikings' near-absolute refusal to rely on the slot-passing game. With improved hands, Williamson could even become a terror.

No matter whether Williamson progresses as a first-round pick should--something he has already failed, in spades, to accomplish--the real question for the Vikings this off-season in determining whether to retain Williamson should be whether he has shown enough to keep on the squad as a third receiver with promise. Given his limited salary figure and high bonus figure, that question might be answered better from a financial angle than from the perspective of legitimate promise.

Up Next: Alternatives to Williamson. Plus, other comings and goings.