Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The New Guy

In the fifth round of the 2008 NFL entry draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected USC quarterback John Booty. The selection offers the Vikings a long-term prospect, but one unlikely either to push Tarvaris Jackson this year or for the next several years, and raises the question of whether the Vikings will begin the season with three or four quarterbacks.

During the 2007 season, Booty completed 63 percent of his passes for 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with an average of 236 passing yards per game. Booty sustained 12 sacks in a ten-game, senior season interrupted by a hand injury.

For Vikings' fans living in Minnesota, those numbers ought to be familiar. Playing in a similarly balanced offense in 2006, though against arguably more formidable defenses, former Minnesota Gopher quarterback Bryan Cupito completed 60 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with an average of 217 yards per game. Cupito was sacked 18 times during his senior season.

The sack total is a fairly telling number for both quarterbacks. Despite playing behind a well-regarded, if sometimes undersized offensive line, Cupito, at times, looked statuesque in a non-Davidian sense throughout his career in Minnesota. Booty, playing behind a much larger offensive line and with generally more potent offensive personnel, looked similarly stuck in the face of a pass-rush.

What the numbers suggest, the scouts generally have agreed upon regarding Booty; Booty has some touch on his pass, an adequate if not exceptional arm, and average mobility in the pocket. That augers well for the Vikings, if, in Booty, they are looking for a player that might catch onto the pro game in a few years.

But selecting a quarterback of Booty's caliber means that the Vikings likely have no intention of using Booty either this year or for several more years--barring an absolute, unresolvable disaster at the starting quarterback position. That means that in 2008, Tavaris Jackson will have to continue to improve and that Gus Frerotte will have to stay healthy and regain at least a semblance of his earlier form if the Vikings are to have success out of their quarterback--unless the team is counting on Brooks Bollinger to fill some role with the team.

That raises, too, the question of the plight of the Vikings' erstwhile, sometimes 2007 starter. With the addition of Booty and Frerotte, the Vikings have four quarterbacks on the roster. If the Vikings carry only three quarterbacks in 2008, that leaves Bollinger the likely odd-man out. And that would leave the Vikings with only Frerotte should Jackson either fail to perform or sustain an injury.

Attempting to transfer Booty to the practice squad likely would result in losing him to another team, thus leaving the Vikings in the same position as would they have been in had they not drafted him. And with few experienced quarterbacks of merit currently on the market, that could leave the Vikings facing a highly difficult decision either regarding the composition of their final quarterbacking corps or their overall roster composition.

Up Next: Dollars and Sense.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Contrary to Conventional Wisdom

Following the Minnesota Vikings' trade for Jared Allen, the Vikings had two relatively acknowledged needs heading into the 2008 season. Those needs were offensive tackle and safety. In the second round of the NFL entry draft yesterday, the Vikings secured one of those two needs, drafting Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson.

Observers and Vikings' fans, alike, might point to more glaring concerns with the team--such as whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson will rise to the level necessary to lead an NFL team and whether the Vikings' receiving corps will suffice to assist Jackson in that endeavor. That the Vikings' coaching staff and personnel people believe the answer to these questions to be affirmative, however, made the team's decision to draft a safety a logical one.

During the 2008 free-agency period, the Vikings cut ties with safeties Mike Doss and Dwight Smith, while signing Madieu Williams and Michael Boulware as free agents and first-year player Alton McCann from the team's practice squad. That left the team with Williams, Boulware, McCann, veteran Darren Sharper, and the inexperienced Eric Frampton. Given Sharper's age and doubts about the long-term prospects of the team's reserve safeties, there was clear reason for the Vikings to be concerned about the future of the team's safety position--not to mention the current status of the position if either of the team's top safeties were to go down to injury this year.

If there was a surprise in the Vikings' second-round pick, it was not that the Vikings selected a safety or that Childress traded up with his former team to pick that safety, but, instead, that it was Johnson, rather than Miami safety Kenny Phillips, who remained on the board at forty-seven. And even that was only a minor surprise.

Those curious about the Vikings' selection in round two will justly point to the availability of two quarterbacks, Louisville's Brian Brohm and Michigan's Chad Henne, far below where the Vikings would have selected had they not traded up with Philadelphia to take Johnson. Others will point to the availability of wide-receivers Limas Sweed of LSU, DeSean Jackson of California, and Malcolm Kelly of Oklahoma. And still others will note the availability of defensive ends Calais Campbell of Miami and Quentin Groves of Auburn. Many Vikings' fans will point to these players as players more capable of filling a pressing needs than does Johnson.

From the perspective of the Vikings' personnel people, however, the team's picture has been clear since the signing of Bernard Berrian and Allen prior to the draft--the team is set at both wide-receiver and defensive end and the quarterback position is settled, however tenuously.

In the final analysis, the selection of Johnson appears to be a sound one for the Vikings, particularly given the team's assessment of talent at other positions. The fact that quarterbacks, receivers, and defensive ends tend to be among the riskier propositions in the draft while safeties fall on the other end of the risk spectrum, further bolsters support for the Vikings' selection of Johnson.

The question for the Vikings, however, is what to do if Jackson does not progress this year at quarterback. Should Sharper and Williams remain healthy and productive, the question logically will be asked why the Vikings passed on Brohm, a quarterback in whom the team had expressed sincere interest, and Henne, a quarterback that the team liked somewhat less than Brohm but whom most scouts rated higher than where he went in the draft? That's not about hindsight, but, instead, about ability to assess talent. And if comes to that, it might be about the organization's assessment of its own assessment team.

Up next: Picking through the leftovers.

Friday, April 25, 2008

And the Best Available Player Is...

By consummating the Jared Allen trade earlier this week, the Minnesota Vikings shored up one of their glaring needs. The price of a first-round pick and two third-round picks, however, means that the Vikings will have to keep their fingers and toes properly crossed in the hope of landing either a safety or an offensive tackle, the team's most prominent needs outside of reliability at quarterback, in this year's NFL entry draft.

The good news for the Vikings is two-fold: safeties tend to go lower in the draft and this year's draft is strong for offensive tackles. The bad news is also two-fold, however: this year's draft is light on high-end safeties and offensive tackles, though relatively plentiful, are likely to be in high demand.

Projecting picks in round one is a risky enough proposition when one reaches the mid- to late-round selections. Projecting slotting after the first round is merely a guessing game. If fortune favors the Vikings on Saturday, however, there is at least a chance that they will have three high-end players from which to select to fill either their offensive tackle or safety need.

The three players most likely to slip to the Vikings at forty-seven are offensive tackle Sam Baker, safety Kenny Phillips, and offensive tackle Duane Brown. There is also an outside possibility that offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus will still be on the board at forty-seven, but that possibility appears increasingly remote as Matt Ryan's stock continues to rise and scouts consider the linemen responsible for Ryan's performance.

Given that most scouts have Baker, Phillips, and Brown in their top 35 players, the Vikings would be fortunate to have any of the three fall to them. Likewise with Cherilus, who is ranked in the top 20 on most boards.

As with any NFL draft, however, few players will go where they are ranked, with most falling somewhere below where they are ranked as a consequence of being by-passed by teams opting for players whom they need over players ranked higher at a position that is not of need. That makes Phillips, Baker, and Brown, all projected in the thirty to forty-five range, reasonable possibilities of still being on the board when the Vikings select in the second round, though Cherilus remains unlikely to fall out of the first round.

The question for the Vikings is whom they will take should Phillips, Baker, Brown, and Cherilus all be off the board at 47. Barring a trade up, or the unpredictable fall of some other high-end talent, the Vikings would be left deciding whether to draft an offensive lineman or safety that otherwise would have gone in the third round (a round in which the Vikings no longer have a pick in this year's draft) or selecting a player at a position less certain to produce an NFL-ready player, such as wide receiver?

If fortune shines on the Vikings on Saturday, the team could emerge from this off-season having filled most of the team's primary, acknowledged needs. Or, the team could be left still searching for offensive line help, a conundrum that seems to have become the team's new linebacker concern.

Up Next: Draft Review. Plus, around the division and the league.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Vikings Add Missing Link to D Line

To say that, by signing former Kansas City Chiefs' defensive end Jared Allen, the Minnesota Vikings have solved all of their off-season issues in one fell swoop would be a falacious overstatement. To say that the Vikings instantly improved one of the more moribund pass rushes in the NFL, would not be, however.

Late Tuesday evening, the Vikings completed terms of the deal set in motion late last week, finalizing the team component of a a pre-draft trade that required the Vikings to reach terms with Allen as well as with the Chiefs. Allen gets lots of money--just shy of what the Indianapolis Colts are paying their stalwart defensive end, Dwight Freeney, and the Chiefs get three draft picks.

The downside to the deal is marginal for the Vikings. In exchange for a player already established as a Pro-Bowl caliber end--the type of player most NFL teams find it difficult to locate and the Vikings have found nearly impossible to find--the Vikings will relinquish to Kansas City the rights to their first-round pick and two third-round picks in this year's NFL entry draft. That's one more third-round pick than the Vikings originally offered Kansas City for Allen and a small increment to concede for a proven player.

The money, as well, should be of marginal concern, as long as the Vikings invest a sizeable portion of the cap hit under the 2008 salary cap. With $28-31 million in guaranteed money and approximately $20 million left under the cap, that figure should be close to $12 million, leaving the Vikings with a manageable cap number after 2009.

The sole concern in this deal for Minnesota is that they are taking on a player who is only one infraction away from a full-year NFL suspension. The Vikings can say what they will about having done their due diligence, but all that really means is that the team believes that Allen will live up to his pledge to stay out of trouble--at least the kind for which the NFL doles out suspensions. And, as anyone who drinks can attest, that's a far easier pledge to make than it is to maintain, no matter an individual's intentions.

Where the Vikings are to be commended is both in seeing the writing on the wall and deviating from the Minnesota sports franchise norm. The move is a necessary one for a team that cannot afford to enter the 2008 season with substantial question marks on both the offensive and defensive lines, particularly when the team is angling to boost the fan base and put pressure on at least some significant government entity to provide funding for a new stadium in the midst of a recession. Adding Allen solidifies the defensive line and assuages concerns about a sometimes suspect secondary.

The move also offers a departure from the Minnesota sports franchises' standard of standing pat rather than taking even the slightest of gambles. This is a slight gamble with potential downside. But the prospective payoff arguably outweighs the risk factor. That's a smart gamble. It's trading prospective assets for a known asset. It's what the New York Mets did to the Minnesota Twins and numerous other Minnesota teams have declined to do to others in the name of not wanting to mortgage a future that seems always destined to remain in the future. For once, it is the Minnesota team that is seizing an opportunity and making itself better while its trading parter rebuilds.

Up Next: The NFL Draft.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vikings Look to Play Role of the Mets

When the Minnesota Twins traded perennial All-Star and Cy Young Award candidate Johan Santana to the New York Mets last off-season for what could only generously be described as a handful of prospects, most objective Twins fans acknowledged the deal for what it was--a salary dump for prospects. Those fans familiar with the Calvin Griffith era, merely shrugged. It seemed a standard in Minnesota made possible by ownership groups having long played the poverty and small-market ownership card with little dissent from the fan base.

We've heard similar laments, at times, from the Minnesota Vikings' ownership group, though, with a salary cap and floor in place in the NFL, the tactic has centered not on payroll issues but on inadequate revenue streams. Of course, the canard in the argument is that while wildly spending MLB ownership groups operating in small markets actually can lose the shirts off of their backs, NFL teams, at worst, stand only to make less money than do their NFL cohorts.

That's what makes this week's revelation that the Kansas City Chiefs are shopping defensive end Jared Allen all the more puzzling. Nearly $30 million under the NFL salary cap--and considerably more should the team trade Allen for draft picks--the Chiefs appear ready to make a run at outdoing the Twins by trading their best defensive lineman, the team's current franchise player, all to save money in the future.

Allen's saga began to unfurl last year after the NFL suspended him as a repeat offender after accumulating two DUIs. When Allen, in a contract year, lobbied for a lucrative, long-term deal approaching the $72 million, six-year deal of the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney, the Chiefs balked.

Instead of a long-term deal, the Chiefs settled on slapping Allen with the team's franchise tag. Allen responded by making clear that, without a long-term deal by July of this year, he would walk next year, leaving the Chiefs with nothing in exchange.

Rather than accede to Allen's demands, the Chiefs gave Allen permission to shop around for a suitor. Two teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Vikings, quickly emerged as having both cap space and relatively good draft picks. The former being necessary to lure Allen, the latter being necessary to entice the Chiefs into making the deal.

As of late Friday, Allen and his agent were in Minnesota negotiating the terms of a deal. That offer is said to be near $68 million over 6 years with $28 million in guaranteed money, including a $12 million roster bonus. The deal would make Allen the second highest paid defensive end in the NFL behind only Freeney.

The financial terms of the Allen deal would make sense for Minnesota on several fronts. To begin with, the team is still flush with cap space and must still spend a few million more this year just to reach the salary cap floor. By fronting Allen large money this year, the Vikings would bring the guaranteed value of the contract down to just over $3 million for the remaining five years of the contract and well in line with the salary cap through the remainder of the current collective bargaining agreement.

By spending over the salary cap floor, Zygi Wilf also would send the message that he intends to make good on his oft-heard promise of returning the Vikings' to championship contention. That pledge might only last as long as it takes for the Minnesota state legislature to ratify funds for a new stadium, but it's more than Vikings' fans have received from any previous ownership group and is, in that respect, at least positive in the short-term.

The sticky wicket in the deal, however, is not the money that Allen is requesting, but the compensation that the Chiefs will request to let Allen go. It is a near certainty that the asking price will be less than two first round picks. For, if that were the asking price, the Chiefs simply would have waited for a team to tender their franchise player before taking the two first round picks as due compensation. Instead, the Chiefs opted to pursue a trade.

In Minnesota, fans are wringing their hands about the prospect of having to give up something close to two first-round picks--say, a first- and a second-round pick in this year's draft--to obtain Allen. In Kansas City, meanwhile, fans and media are hoping that the Chiefs do not settle merely for a first-round pick, all the while wondering why in the world the Chiefs are even considering trading Allen.

That only Kansas City team officials seem to be interested in trading Allen, while Kansas City players, fans, and media grouse, suggests one of two things--either the Chiefs know something about Allen about which nobody else, including his teammates, is privvy, or the Chiefs are simply dumping what would otherwise be a large salary.

Why Kansas City would be looking to dump salary when they already face the daunting prospect of even reaching the salary cap floor is anyone's guess. But given the comments of his teammates, it appears that the answer to that question has little to do with Allen. And that suggests that a deal for Allen would be a good deal for a Vikings' team in desperate need of a defensive end since John Randle last lined up for the Purple.

Up Next: Signing. Plus, the draft.