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.