Thursday, February 26, 2009

Visions of Sugar Plums

On the eve of the NFL's 2009 free-agency period, football fans across the country either look forward to the additions that their favorite team will make or loathe yet another off-season of ownership pocket-lining and inactivity. Fortunately for Minnesota Vikings' fans, they can count themselves among those in the former category.

As midnight Eastern time approaches, the Vikings already appear poised to make two moves with the expected addition of Houston Texans' backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels and the presumed release of Gus Frerotte. Rosenfels' uneven play in eight seasons as a sometimes starter, combined with his relatively cheap price tag, suggests that the Vikings might not yet be done addressing their quarterback situation. If they are, however, there will be plenty remaining 2009 free-agent dollars yet to parcel out.

Cash liquidity is important for the Vikings this year, just as it has been the past three seasons. For, despite what has been suggested elsewhere, there is sufficient free-agent talent to fill the Vikings' needs this year. The question is whether the Vikings are willing to pay for it and, if so, how they plan to do so.

With over $32 million available to spend on free agents this year, the Vikings are well enough situated to allow them to add two high-end free agents and to re-sign key veterans. And that's without spending any significant money beyond this season.

As the Vikings have done the first three seasons that the Wilf's have presided over free agency, they likely will do again this season, bringing free-agent dollars forward by signing players to roster bonuses rather than the pro-rated signing bonuses that most teams use. The advantage of this approach to free-agent contracts is that it limits the Vikings' financial exposure after the year in which the players are signed, ensuring that the Vikings will have substantial cap room is succeeding years.

By using roster bonuses to sign free agents the past three seasons, the Vikings have consistently maintained substantial cap room in subsequent years while also retaining Pro Bowl-caliber talent at numerous positions. This year should be no different.

If the Vikings follow their pattern of the past three seasons, fans should expect the team to target at least one, probably two high-end free agents. Assuming that Rosenfels is being brought in to compete for the starting position with Jackson removes Kurt Warner, for better or worse, from consideration. That leaves two very good free agents on the market that would fit a need for the Vikings--wide-receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh and center Jason Brown.

2009 is a significant year for the Vikings. With Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams possibly playing their final seasons in Minnesota, there is a reasonable sense that this is the final window year of what, to date, has proven to be an unrequited opening. If the Vikings wish to take advantage of that opening, logic suggests that they re-sign Matt Birk, Jim Kleinsasser, and Heath Farwell and add a high-end receiver, offensive lineman, cornerback, and safety.

Birk's relationship with the team appears tenuous, though it ought not be. Familiar with the system and still capable of playing at a reasonable level, if not necessarily at his peak level, there is little reason to part with Birk this year in favor another aging center that probably won't fit seamlessly into the Vikings' system. This is particularly true now that Jeff Saturday has elected to remain with the Colts.

While Birk is valuable to the Vikings' offensive line, Kleinsasser might be even more so. Few tight ends block as well as does Kleinsasser, making him an invaluable bookend on a weak right side of the Vikings' offensive line. While Kleinsasser's days of five-yard receptions likely are in the past, he still blocks better than many linemen and earns his pay on that end. His loss would be as great to the Vikings as would be Birk's, though, ironically, the Vikings probably can retain Kleinsasser for the league minimum or slightly more.

Last season, Vikings' fans were inundated with the team's contention that they "did not appreciate the difference that Heath Farwell made on special teams" and how significant his loss was to what became one of the more putrid units in the NFL. Either the Vikings changed their collective mindset on Farwell or Farwell wasn't interested in being a special team's player for the rest of his career. Though the Vikings could still sign Farwell, it appears that he is headed elsewhere, leaving the Vikings either to come up with a replacement in free agency or to find one in the draft.

That leaves two pressing needs that cannot reasonably be expected to be filled through the draft--an offensive lineman and a number one receiver. Bernard Berrian did well last year what he was asked to do, namely, run down the sideline and haul in one or two deep passes a game. But TJ Houshmandzadeh not only can run down the sideline, he also can run across the field and through heavy traffic and can haul in the corner of the endzone pass. That puts his value higher than the combined values of Bobby Wade, Sidney Rice, and Aundrae Allison. And it makes him a great off-season target for the Vikings.

Catching passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2008, Houshmandzadeh had a tough time picking up big yards in what became a short-passing offense without a running game. The result was a relatively modest 904-yard output for the season. That put Houshmandzadeh 60 yards behind Berrian in that category. But TJ showed his worth in other ways, most notably by hauling in 92 passes, good for fifth in the NFL and ahead of Berrian by 44 receptions. On a Cincinnati team on which many players quit, that's quite remarkable.

Signing Houshmandzadeh will be expensive, probably costing the team that signs him $12-16 million in bonus money and $6-$8 million per year in salary. That's steep and, generally speaking, too steep for a receiver. But Houshmandzadeh is one of the few receivers that might be worth that kind of money. And the Vikings can afford it--either by using a big chunk of this year's cap space or by spreading out the pain in the form of a signing bonus.

If the Vikings sign Houshmandzadeh, that likely will put to rest any notion of also signing Ravens' free-agent center Jason Brown, who is now seeking more money than most starting quarterbacks receive, increase the likelihood of re-signing Birk, and increase the likelihood of considering signing a veteran right offensive guard and making do for yet another season without a competent right offensive tackle. That, of course, would make Kleinsasser even more valuable--and probably somehow mean that Kleinsasser would be paid even less.

Up Next: Free Agency Arrives. Surprise Moves.

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