Sunday, March 30, 2008

Three Moves Could Make Vikings Viable

At the beginning of the 2006 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings had three primary positional concerns--running back, linebacker, and defensive end. The team resolved the running back issue by picking up Chester Taylor and fullback Tony Richardson, the linebacker issue by drafting Chad Greenway, bringing in Ben Leber, and putting their faith in E.J. Henderson on the edge and Napoleon Harris in the middle, and the offensive tackle position by drafting an oversized center in Ryan Cook. The defensive end situation essentially was left to dangle, with the hope that someone from the Vikings large pool of high defensive end draft picks finally would pan out.

In 2007, after a season in which the team realized new-found problems at quarterback and wide receiver, and renewed problems at right offensive guard and right offensive tackle, the team committed itself to moving forward with second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and brought in Bobby Wade as the team's new number one receiver. Again, the defensive end position was left to sort itself out. And the right side of the offensive line was entrusted to a never-was veteran in Artis Hicks and the slowly progressing/moderately regressing Cook.

The net result of all of the Vikings moves at positions of weakness since Brad Childress became head coach is that the Vikings now have a significantly improved linebacking corps--long the source of frustration to dedicated Vikings' fans, a vastly improved running game, and a slight improvement in the receiving corps.

Improvements in key areas have been off-set, however, by continuing malingering in other areas and outright bad play in others. The right side of the offensive line appears cabable of stabilizing in 2008 with the emergence at right guard Anthony Herrera, though continuing poor play from Cook, the likely loss of left tackle Bryant McKinnie for at least the first four games of the 2008 season, if not longer, and Matt Birk's expected discontent over his contract, given recent large contracts for McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson, suggest a need for immediate bolstering of the offensive line.

The addition of Bernard Berrian, subtraction of Troy Williamson, and maturation and use of Sidney Rice should, conservatively, give the Vikings an additional 40 receptions from the wide-receiving corps in 2008, though Berrian has work to do to show that he is not simply a rich man's version of Williamson.

Of all of the issues facing the Vikings for the past three years and continuing into this season, none is more significant, however, than that of quarterback. After drafting Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft, the Vikings have done little to address the substantial fall-off behind their inexperienced signal caller, relying on the likes of Mike McMahon, Kelly Holcomb, and Brooks Bollinger to provide Jackson a competitive nudge. Those moves have compelled the Vikings finally to admit that ability, not familiarity, is the paramount value in a backup quarterback.

While the wide receiving corps appears set for 2008, the Vikings still have very good options for addressing at least three of their other weaknesses and, by so doing, for significantly improving their team in 2008.

Among the moves that the Vikings should consider are the addition of, not one, but two capable backup quarterbacks. Childress' use of Holcomb over Bollinger last season clearly indicated Childress' near absolute lack of faith in the former Badger signal caller. That leaves two holes behind Jackson--one that ought finally to be filled by a capable veteran, the other by a younger quarterback capable of taking over in the long run should Jackson falter. Players fitting both descriptions currently are available for little or no price.

Though his career numbers are not dramatically better than those of Bollinger, most believe that Houston Texans' quarterback Sage Rosenfels has the potential to be better than even his respectable 2007 numbers showed. Believing Rosenfels to have high market value, the Texans opened the 2008 free-agency period seeking a second-round pick in exchange for the quarterback. No team bit. Now the team is asking for a third-round pick.

While a third-round pick might be one round higher than the Vikings or any other team need give up for the rights to Rosenfels, a third-round pick for a younger quarterback with some proven NFL ability is hardly a risk given the options that teams typically have drafting in the third round of the entry draft. That should make picking up Rosenfels a fait accompli, thus calling into question whether, given the Vikings' recent track record at this position, it will be.

Adding Rosenfels would resolve the Vikings' need for a younger presence capable of pushing Jackson. But the team still needs a veteran capable of spelling Jackson in the short term. That veteran could and should be former Viking Gus Frerotte. Frerotte, whom the Vikings elected not to sign as a free agent in 2007, is again a free agent and is again interested in a move to Minnesota. Though Frerotte has had some health issues, bringing him in as a back-up under any circumstances would be preferable to what the Vikings have done the past two seasons and, along with the addition of Rosenfels, would give the Vikings immediate depth at quarterback.

Resolution of the quarterback situation would leave the Vikings with remaining holes along the offensive line and at defensive end. As with the back-up quarterback position, there are viable options for filling both of these needs.

It is no secret that new Miami Dolphins' GM Bill Parcells would be delighted to move disgruntled defensive end Jason Taylor for the right price. Taylor is probably in the last two years of his NFL career and is forever discontented with his pay, and his play, good or bad, likely will have little effect on a Dolphins' team currently in rebuilding mode.

The question outside of Miami is what constitutes the right price for Taylor. With players such as Randy Moss moving to the Patriots in 2007 for a fourth-round pick and Matt Schaub traded to Houston in 2007 for two second-round picks, the market asking price for an aging and disgruntled, though still capable defensive end figures to be between a second- and third-round pick--an asking price that will only go down as the season approaches and the Dolphins face the possibility of being stuck with a player that means nothing to their future.

While the Vikings could offer a second- or third-round pick for Taylor without wincing, they could also dangle in front of the Dolphins another package that could help both teams. Facing a decision on McKinnie, the Vikings could offer McKinnie for Taylor along with a swap of first-round picks. The move would give the Dolphins an offensive lineman who should be around when the team re-emerges and the Vikings a player it needs now and a pick that it can use to draft the best lineman in the country--or another defensive end in Chris Long.

For the Dolphins, the issues will be whether freeing itself of a high-pick salary bonus by dropping several spots in the draft in a rebuilding season is off-set by what will be available when they ultimately do draft--and whether having McKinnie in Miami, the epicenter of his current legal troubles, is worth the downside. If the answer to either of these questions is "no," moving Taylor for a second- or third-round pick should remain a viable option.

For the Vikings, the question will be how hard to push for the inclusion of McKinnie and the swap of first-round picks in a prospective deal to add Taylor. Despite McKinnie's sub-par 2007 and relatively lackluster career given the initial trajectory for his NFL career, losing McKinnie would add yet another question mark to an already fragile offensive line. And that might be more of a risk than a conservative head coach needing to prove himself in 2008 is willing to take on.

Up Next: The Draft.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Good or Bad Cap Management?

In a previous column, the Minnesota Vikings received plaudits for their quick response to free agency, a response that netted the team cornerback Madieu Williams, wide-receiver Bernard Berrian, and full-back Thomas Tapeh. At the time, the Vikings still had defensive end Justin Smith in their sights, with defensive end Atwan Odom also still an option.

A cursory tally of Williams', Berrian's, and Tapeh's cap numbers suggested that, despite salaries inflated by limited free-agency talent and generous cap space for nearly every NFL team, the Vikings did reasonably well by signing their free-agent targets to cap-acceptable terms. The initial count suggested that the Vikings were committed to approximately $14.5 million in cap space for 2008 and for the next several seasons.

Last week, the Vikings revealed the terms of Berrian's contract, noting, in particular, that Berrian's guaranteed money--the money that tends to more greatly affect a team's salary cap over the long run--was, to a large extent, brought forward to 2008 and 2009 by including in Berrian's contract two roster bonuses worth $8 million and $3 million, respectively.

Berrian's 2008 roster bonus means that his cap figure for 2008 will be approximately $9.5 million, not including incentives. It also means that, after 2009, the Vikings will have a highly manageable cap figure with which to work when dealing with Berrian.

Entering free agency, the Vikings were approximately $24 million under the 2008 salary cap. Following the release of Dwight Smith and the trade of Troy Williamson, the team picked up an additional $5-6 million in cap space, before accounting for unearned LTBEs.

Estimates are now circulating of the Vikings having approximately $37 million in cap space in 2008, prior to any free-agent signings. After deducting the cap figures for Berrian, Williams, and Tapeh, that number shrinks to approximately $21 million.

The NFL salary cap in 2008 is $116 with a salary cap floor of $100.2 million. Under league rules, each team must commit at least to the salary cap floor or forfeit the difference. At present, the Vikings remain approximately $5 million below this floor.

The Vikings have several options for meeting the league's salary cap requirements. One option is to sign additional players. A second option is to re-work existing contracts, bringing forward cap space to 2008, thereby creating additional cap space for future years. A third option is to re-work existing contracts to include farcical, albeit league-approved, LTBEs.

The Vikings are widely regarded across the NFL as being among the leaders in probing the limits of LTBEs and there is little reason to believe that, after committing heavily to LTBE-laden contracts in each of Zygi' Wilf's first three seasons as owner of the team that the team will act any differently this season.

Even with LTBEs, however, the Vikings have a substantial amount of cap room remaining in 2008 and will find it difficult to justifying to the fan base the use of LTBEs when deficiencies remain on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Moreover, as the team battles to gain legislative support for a new stadium, spending to the league cap floor probably will not be the right signal to send. Much more likely will be required.

That leaves only free-agency, a route available to the Vikings had they elected to bid on some of the available defensive ends, and re-structuring. The latter is no more palatable to the fan base than is the use of LTBEs except that it brings forth actual dollars rather than dollars merely floated from year to year under the guise of LTBEs. And the former, at this stage in the process, appears no longer to be available.

And that could leave the Vikings in a bind, despite the gains that they made in free agency.

Up Next: Trade Options? Plus, the NFL entry draft.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Going Big

The Minnesota Vikings opened the 2008 free-agency period by signing former Cincinnati Bengals' starting safety Madieu Williams and former Philadelphia Eagle and University of Minnesota fullback Thomas Tapeh. Yesterday, the Vikings added to their list of free-agent signees, inking former Chicago Bears' wide-receiver Bernard Berrian.

The Vikings signed Williams to a six-year deal worth $33 million, with $13 million in guaranteed money. Tapeh will earn approximately $1 million per season with approximately the same amount in guaranteed money. The Williams and Tapeh deals put the Vikings on the hook for roughly $6.5 million in cap space over each of the next six years--not a major concern given that Madieu is young and plays a position at which career longevity is among the highest in the NFL, while Tapeh's numbers, even if accelerated to this year, are relatively marginal.

While Williams and Tapeh had decent paydays--perhaps less so for Tapeh who should be questioning his agent's negotiating acumen given the contract that Visanthe Shiancoe's agent wrangled out of the Vikings last year for a player far less integral to the team's offense--Berrian is far and away the greatest beneficiary of need meeting cap space in this year's NFL free agency period.

With a six year deal worth $42 million and $16 million in guaranteed money, Berrian will cost the Vikings roughly $7 million in cap space over each of the next six seasons. That's approaching Terrell Owens ($9.6), Marvin Harrison ($8.4), Torry Holt ($7.7), and Chad Johnson ($7.6) money for 2007 and easily bests the 2007 cap figures for Reggie Wayne ($5.9) and Larry Fitzgerald ($5.4). And it raises the issue of whether the Vikings received value for their money.

The short answer is that it depends. If the Vikings have sufficient LTBEs added to their 2008 cap, they could re-work their deal(s) with Berrian and/or Williams to bring forward bonus money to 2008 in the form of roster, rather than signing bonuses. That would make the big paydays less daunting over time and put less of a premium on Berrian and Williams being long-term solutions at their respective positions.

If, however, the Vikings are pushed up against the cap this season without the benefit of accelerating any bonuses, that could leave the Vikings with a small window of opportunity to cash in on their 2008 free-agent signings, a window that likely would close with the expected departures of Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield, and the probable retirement of Matt Birk, within the next two years. That small window of opportunity will look even smaller if the quarterback situation does not clarify prior to the 2008 season.

The difficulty for the Vikings, of course, is that the organization had no alternative but to bolster the roster in free agency and to over-pay to do so. With numerous teams possessing much healthier cap lines than did the Vikings, the Vikings were forced to make their best offer early. They did just that and they signed players that they absolutely needed to fill positions that they were unlikely to be able to fill in the draft. The result has been one of the Vikings' most productive free-agency periods in some time--with the caveat that it may need to pay very large dividends in the short term.

Up Next: More Free Agency.