Sunday, March 01, 2009

Vikings and Patriots Blink, Minnesota Must Blink Again

In the opening days of the NFL's 2009 free-agency period, the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots both did what they had attempted to persuade themselves they would not do. And neither of the teams' decisions comes as much of a surprise.

Vikings Ink Kleinsasser

The Vikings opened free-agency by doing something that they were unable to do in the days leading up to free-agency, signing blocking tight end Jim Kleinsasser. A ten-year veteran, Kleinsasser hauled in a relatively nice $9 million, three-year deal from Minnesota. The move is important to the Vikings in several respects, as it shores up the right side of the Vikings' suspect offensive line for the foreseeable future while also putting a salary cap on the position at least through the potentially uncapped 2011 season.

Move Suggests Birk's Value

With no free-agent signings as yet along the offensive line, Kleinsasser's retention is worth far more than the $9 million ($3.5 million guaranteed) that the Vikings inked him for and suggests what the Vikings might need to pay to retain center Matt Birk. If Kleinsasser is worth $3 million a season to Minnesota, the equal of his 2008 salary, Birk probably is worth at least what he earned in 2008, $6 million. With most teams set at center and age and injury issues creeping in to the picture, a $5 million-per-year deal over two years would not be unexpected.

Unless the Vikings are completely sold on second-year center John Sullivan, however, they are quickly finding themselves in an untenable position that should provide leverage to Birk if he wants to take advantage of it. Jason Brown's signing with St. Louis leaves the Vikings with two options at center for 2009, assuming that they act quickly. Either they can pony up for Birk or they can move to the Sullivan era during what most presume to be their closing window of opportunity to reach the Super Bowl with their current corps of players.

If head coach Brad Childress had complete control over this situation, there is little question that Birk would not return in 2009. Childress remains rankled by Birk's well-reasoned, subtle questioning of some of the unproven coach's tactics during his three-year run as head coach. Birk's unwillingness to pledge absolute fealty to the unclothed emperor is what has created this situation for the Vikings. And Childress' certain desire to prove that he can coach up a player like Sullivan in a critical year for the team only would add to Childress' desire to see Birk gone.

Fortunately for Vikings' fans, Childress will not be the sole decision-maker on Birk's role with the team in 2009. And it appears, after both sides have had an opportunity to feel out free agency, that Birk and the Vikings will come to terms on a deal that would keep Birk in Minnesota for two more seasons. That should mean a good deal for both sides--and a critical one for the Vikings.

Patriots Get What They Can for Cassel

While the Vikings deliberate whether to blink on Birk, the Patriots did what many thought they never would, but which logic dictated they would have no other option than to do, trading back-up quarterback Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs for a portion of a second-round pick. Facing a dearth of interested parties, the Patriots got what they could for a player that they simply could not afford to have ride their bench in 2009 at a franchise-level quarterback salary.

The primary value to Kansas City of the Cassel trade is not in adding Cassel (21 TDs, 11 INTs, 3,600 yards, Bill Belichick) as a starter but in providing competition to incumbent quarterback Tyler Thigpen (18 TDs, 12 INTs, 2600 yards, Herm Edwards) and climbing up to the league's salary cap floor. With nearly $40 million in cap room for 2009, no top-flight players interested in signing with the team, and a need to spend approximately $25 million to reach the league salary cap floor, the Chiefs need Cassel's $14 million dollar salary just to spend what they are required to spend in 2009. That they accomplished a significant portion of their salary goal by trading part of a second-round pick--the other part going for the acquisition of Mike Vrabel--is the cake with frosting. Cassel's potential upside is merely the cherry atop that cake.

Houshmandzadeh in the Mix?

While the Vikings consider their move on Birk, the team remains approximately $14 million below its salary cap floor for 2009. That portends not only the signing of Birk, but also the addition of a high-end free agent. With Brown now off of the free-agent market, the Vikings should be in prime position to add Cincinnati Bengal wide-receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and still leave the team with sufficient cap room to sign a right guard, such as San Diego Charger Mike Goff. That would leave for the draft the unearthing of an offensive lineman--a clear first-round need.

Given Houshmandzadeh's revelation of having narrowed his list of suitors to Minnesota, Seattle, and Cincinnati, the prospects look reasonably good that Houshmandzadeh will be wearing purple in 2009.

Barring the addition of Houshmandzadeh, Minnesota will be faced with having to spend a boatload of money to meet league cap rules. The Vikings could reach the salary cap floor either by signing the only other high-end free agent that meets their immediate needs, quarterback Kurt Warner, or by bringing forward payroll for players already under contract--a move better reserved for next season with the uncapped season of 2011 looming. Even with the addition of Houshmandzadeh, however, the Vikings would be in a position to add Warner and bring player payroll forward in 2010, if they elect to spend additional cap salary in 2009.

Up Next: More Free Agency. Plus, the Sensible Stadium Solution the Vikings Never Will Offer.

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