Friday, March 26, 2010

Vikings Can Have Cake and Eat It Too

On Friday, the Philadelphia Eagles made it official--for the umpteenth time; they are willing to entertain offers for quarterback Donovan McNabb. What makes this iteration different from previous not-so-subtle announcements to this effect is that the Eagles are now defining sensible demands for such a trade.

In the past, the Eagles have suggested that they would only part with McNabb for a pair of high draft choices. That's never been the market for a 30-plus-year-old quarterback, no matter the pedigree. And given that the Eagles have been looking to move McNabb for essentially the past three seasons, it was a truly absurd asking price. Not surprisingly, no teams have yet moved on McNabb.

With the Eagles voicing more reasonable demands this time around, however, it seems almost certain that McNabb will be in a different uniform in 2010. And if that uniform is not Viking purple, the Minnesota Vikings will have missed a golden opportunity to improve their team next year and for several years thereafter.

Although it appears certain that Brett Favre will return to Minnesota next season, nothing with Favre is ever set in stone until it actually happens. But Minnesota need not know with certainty what Favre's intentions for next season are before deciding whether to move on McNabb.

Despite the sense around the league that Favre will return to Minnesota next season, and perhaps beyond that, McNabb already has expressed his interest in landing in Minnesota, should he be traded to another team. That means that, in spite of the high probability that he will serve as a back-up next year, McNabb still prefers Minnesota to all other teams.

McNabb does not have a no-trade clause in his contract, so his wishes cannot fully govern his trade from Philadelphia. But with only one year remaining on his current contract, it is unlikely that any team would cede much of anything to the Eagles without reasonable assurances that McNabb would negotiate an extension of his current contract. For rebuilding teams like Oakland and St. Louis, teams believed otherwise to have an interest in trading for McNabb, that makes trading a high draft pick for McNabb, highly foolish.

Philadelphia has suggested that it is looking for a draft pick in the top 42 of this year's draft in exchange for McNabb. For all but ten teams, that means a first-round pick. But, like Oakland and St. Louis, those teams in the top ten of the draft are there because they are rebuilding. That makes McNabb both less valuable to them and less likely to stick around beyond 2010-11. All of which raises the question of whether Philadelphia should expect to receive what they are asking.

The probable answer is "no." McNabb's statement of preferred destination--one team and one team only--only increases the probability of that result. And that makes it highly likely that the Vikings have only themselves, and Philly's organizational pride, against which to bid.

Given these factors, it seems highly likely that Minnesota could obtain McNabb for a second-round pick in this year's draft and possibly for simply a third-round pick.

The subsequent question is whether the Vikings ought to pursue McNabb, a quarterback who clearly is better than the average NFL starting quarterback, but who has moments of highly suspect play. If the Vikings wish to ensure against the possibility that Favre will not return, and take seriously the need to find Favre's replacement when Favre finally does leave, the team could do far worse than McNabb. And if McNabb is fine sitting behind Favre for a season--which, it appears, he is--there ought to be no downside to the move, other than the slight possibility of aggravating Favre into early retirement.

Up Next: Really Time to Move.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Twins Sign Mauer and What That Portends for Vikings

On Sunday, the Minnesota Twins inked star catcher Joe Mauer to an eight-year $184 million contract. It's not Vikings' news, but it may influence the Vikings in some respect in the future by helping to establish the market for players in this market--even if, as expected, the NFL returns to cap rules.

By signing Mauer to an extension at only somewhat of a hometown discount, the Twins are acknowledging that they have both the means and the need to keep cornerstone players off of the market, even if it means paying well. That has not previously been the case for the local nine, who only twice before, with Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, even came remotely close to breaking open the piggy bank. And in neither of those cases did the Twins come anywhere near reaching this type of deal.

The Twins' signing of Mauer is yet another sign of the largess that pro baseball teams enjoy when they field a reasonably competitive team. Though the Vikings unquestionably will point to the Mauer deal as indicative of what can happen when a team benefits from the revenue streams created by a new stadium, Vikings' fans have sufficient ammunition, should the need arise, to argue that the Twins were able to sign Mauer, with the benefit of the new stadium revenue, but without the substantially greater benefit accruing to all NFL teams as a result of the NFL's numerous television deals.

In short, what Mauer's signing does for Vikings' fans is signal that, even in an uncapped system, the Vikings have no excuse--not even that of operating out of an "outdated" stadium where they enjoy naming rights, free rent, and other kickbacks, in addition to their own revenue streams from the league and fans--for not continuing to put a strong product on the field.

As the Wilf's continue their quest for a new stadium, spending money in their effort to demonstrate their commitment to the team and market, that point might appear irrelevant. It is, however, one worth keeping in one's back pocket for that day when the Wilf's might enjoy a new stadium and might also be operating in either an uncapped environment or one in which there exists a great disparity between the salary cap and the salary floor.

Up Next: Time to Move.

Monday, March 15, 2010

With LT in NY Vikings in Position of Concession

Entering free-agency, the Minnesota Vikings settled on the fact that they would be without the services of running back Chester Taylor in 2010. That was an eventuality that the Vikings essentially ensured first when they decided not to rework Taylor's contract prior to last year, when the running back was still amenable to such an overture, and then when the team opted not to franchise Taylor.

The decision to move on from Taylor might have been perfectly agreeable had the Vikings been assured of a suitable replacement. In an upside down and inside out free-agent season, however, no such guarantees were even remotely foreseeable, leaving the Vikings in a bind.

When the San Diego Chargers released veteran running Back LaDanian Tomlinson prior to this year's free-agency period, Minnesota appeared to catch a break. Suddenly, a veteran back who could pass and run block, hold onto the ball in goal line situations, and catch, was on the market--and there were few other suitors.

Unfortunately for the Vikings, there was one other suitor for Tomlinson's services. That party was the New York Jets. Offering a deal worth approximately $1.5 million per season for two seasons, the Jets landed Tomlinson. Reportedly, the Vikings' offer was very similar to that of the Jets. And, reportedly, Tomlinson's primary consideration, the factor that won him over to the Jets, was the possibility of starting in New York.

It certainly is fair to consider whether Tomlinson is being rational. The Jets, after all, have two backs with whom they are already enamored, and there is little reason to believe that Tomlinson will be the featured back in New York. Still, he assuredly stood even less of an opportunity to be the featured back in Minnesota--no matter the fact that Taylor seemed to do quite well for himself as the "non-featured" back.

More importantly, however, it doesn't really matter how realistic Tomlinson is being. What matters is that he has made his decision and his decision leaves the Vikings with a hole yet to be filled. And that leaves the Vikings with a much larger conundrum.

Assuming, as one ought to do, that Albert Young is not a viable candidate to pick up where Taylor left off, the Vikings are left with three options--sign Brian Westbrook, tender a restricted free agent, or draft a running back in the early rounds of the draft. None of these options are all that appealing, but the middle option appears the most palatable.

In his best of health, Westbrook is an season-ending injury in the waiting. In his current condition, afflicted by recurring concussion issues, he is the highest of health risks imaginable for a team that needs certainty at his position. While the Vikings probably can sign Westbrook at a bargain basement price and hope that he is able to play, signing Westbrook would essentially require the team also to sign another viable, veteran running back in the event that Westbrook goes down for any length of time. In such a case, money will not be a sticking point. Rather, it will be the commitment of a roster spot to two players to fill one role that will be problematic.

Signing a restricted free agent offers its own burdens, specifically, a possibly higher salary than the Vikings were willing even to offer Thomas Jones and the likely loss of a draft pick in this year's draft. The salary issue is something that the Vikings simply will need to accept. The draft choice is another matter as it will effect the team going forward.

As a practical matter, offering a high draft pick for a veteran running back is risky. Swapping high draft picks for players is best left for swaps involving players at one of three positions--defensive end, offensive line, and quarterback. That's because players at these three positions, particularly the latter two, tend to perform over the longest period of time in the NFL. By contrast, investing heavily in a veteran running back offers the least relative return.

If the Vikings are serious about this year and beyond, and are keen on trading picks for established players with years left ahead of them in the league, they ought to consider tendering offensive linemen with their first-round pick. I've suggested this route before regarding Patriots' offensive lineman Logan Mankins--a player whom the Vikings could tender for a first- and third-round pick in this year's draft.

For a veteran running back with two or three years left in the tank, offering even a second-round qualifying free-agent a tender is a considerable gamble as it suggests a swap of a two-year player for one that should be in the league for at least a decade.

If the Vikings are willing to concede a second-round pick in this year's draft, however, there are several options from which to choose, including Pierre Thomas, Leon Washington, LenDale White, and Jerome Harrison. Each of these players has shown the ability to serve as a solid backup in the NFL and to catch and block. And each would provide a good return for what essentially will be a third-round pick in this year's draft.

The final option is to use the second-round pick to select one of the many purportedly NFL-ready running backs in this year's draft. Were the Vikings focusing on years beyond 2010, rather than looking at making a run to the Super Bowl this year, that would be the preferable alternative to trading away a day-one pick for a veteran, backup running back. Given the Vikings' current make-up and their rapidly closing window of opportunity, however, option two looks far more preferable this season.

Up Next: Making Sense of Seattle.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Vikings' Gambles Result in Fewer Options and Lesser Return

Last year, the Minnesota Vikings gambled that either they could buy Chester Taylor at the twelfth hour at a discount or that they no longer would need someone like Taylor behind a gradually evolving Adrian Peterson. That gambled failed, as the Vikings increasingly relied on Taylor in clutch situations and Peterson plateaued.

The Vikings subsequently lost Taylor to a $12.5 million, four-year deal, with $7 million guaranteed, with division rival Chicago. While it is understandable that the Vikings did not want to sign a back-up running back at starter's money, losing Taylor offers an alarming trend for the Vikings' front office over the past two years--that of being penny wise and pound foolish.

Since the end of the 2008-2009 NFL season, the Vikings have lost three significant players to free-agency--Taylor, Matt Birk, and Darren Sharper. There certainly were arguments for letting each of the three players test the free-agency market, but there were also opportunities for the Vikings to sign each of the three at a discount, early in the process. The Vikings passed on all three opportunities.

The loss of Sharper and Birk was noticeable in 2009-2010 as the Vikings struggled to gain cohesion along the offensive line and failed miserably at the safety position. Those difficulties were not solely the result of the losses of Sharper and Birk, but Birk's and/or Sharper's presence would have mitigated the issues. Vikings' fans are left hoping that a similar scenario does not play out owing to the loss of Taylor. If it does, the Vikings surely will ponder whether it would have been wiser to franchise Taylor than to fill the void that he left behind.

With Taylor out of the picture, the Vikings find themselves in need of a back-up running back that they can use as a starter if Peterson either becomes injured or begins fumbling the ball. Taylor's signing left three running backs on the free-agent board with just such a pedigree at some point in their respective careers, but only one who can make such a claim today, Thomas Jones.

On Tuesday, Jones inked a two-year, $5 million deal with Kansas City that pairs the former Bear and Jet with Jamaal Charles. Jones almost certainly would have accepted a comparable offer to team with Peterson on a contending team, had the Vikings made such an offer.

By eschewing Jones, the Vikings arguably have made increasingly suspect decisions regarding their back-up running back position. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations to franchise Taylor at approximately $6 million in an uncapped season when that team is well below last season's salary cap, is not only not an unreasonable financial move, but arguably a wise one. To pass on the opportunity to replace Taylor with a player arguably better than Taylor at less money over two seasons than Taylor would have cost at one is encroaching upon highly suspect.

Passing on Thomas Jones leaves the Vikings with two meaningful free-agent options, short of wading into the pool of restricted free agents. Those two options are Brian Westbrook and LaDanian Tomlinson. Both should be cheaper than Jones, but neither offers the certainty that both Taylor and Jones do.

Westbrook is injury-prone in the best of times, and, perhaps, finished as an NFL player in spite of his free-agency bid, due to recurring concussion symptoms. Tomlinson, two years removed from being one of the best running backs ever to play in the NFL, looked broken down last year and an unlikely candidate ever to start in the NFL again for a serious contender.

The winnowing of options, attributable to the Vikings' waiting game, has left the Vikings with only one real option at back-up running back. That option clearly is Tomlinson, a player whom the Vikings could sign as early as Wednesday. Tomlinson should be able to provide the pass-blocking that the Vikings need from the position and some push, however reduced from what he provided at the pinnacle of his career, in the screen-pass and short-yardage game.

What Tomlinson likely cannot give the Vikings is a running back that can step into Peterson's shoes if Peterson falters or is injured. Taylor could have done that for a stretch, as could have Jones. The Vikings will be left to hope that the issue never poses itself, however, and that Tomlinson can do what back-up running backs with blocking and pass-catching skills generally are asked to do.

Up Next: Time to Act on Restricted Free Agents.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Taylor Out, Favre In

In the early moments of the NFL's 2010 free-agency period--the period during which most of the major off-season moves typically occur--there are few, if any, indications that running back Chester Taylor will return to the Minnesota Vikings in 2010. That's not a surprise, given that the Vikings already have a starting running back and Chester Taylor wants starting running back money.

What remains surprising, however, is how the Vikings approached the Taylor situation dating back to last season. Aware of the likelihood of an uncapped season and its arcane rules, the Vikings had every reason to approach Taylor last Summer and work out an extension on Taylor's contract. That did not happen.

Adding to the peculiarity of the situation is that the Vikings wanted Taylor back in the fold in 2010. And, if one believes local reports, the team was willing to spend nearly $6 million to ensure his return.

Either the local angle is entirely off base--highly possible given how the locals tend to hype local ownership's willingness to part with money--or the Vikings simply dropped the ball.

Current reports have Taylor signing for nearly $8 million per season. Though that seems high, even at a discount from that estimate, Taylor appears headed for a pay day higher than or near what he would have received as a franchise player. All of which begs the question of why, if the Vikings were serious about retaining Taylor and were indeed willing to spend nearly $6 million per season on him, they did not franchise Taylor when they had the opportunity to do so?

Vikings' fans will be left hoping that the Taylor decision does not result in a Matt Birk-like scenario at running back in 2010. With Darren Sproles and Ronnie Brown tendered at the highest level, Michael Westbrook and LaDanian Tomlinson recovering from serious health issues and ineffective, respectively, the Vikings are left either to move on a player like Jerome Harrison (tendered with a second-round tender) or to select Taylor's replacement in the draft. That might work out well for Minnesota, but it also creates uncertainty where Taylor was a known commodity.

While Taylor appears all but certain to be gone next year, quarterback Brett Favre appears all but certain to return.

After pitching a game-changing pick in the NFC Championship game, it appeared highly likely that Favre would return to avenge the mistake. When Peyton Manning made a similar miscue in the Super Bowl, confirming that mistakes happen independent of age, and the Saints won the Super Bowl, Favre's return to Minnesota seemed even more likely.

Last night's appearance with Jay Leno only solidified the impression that Favre will return. Though Favre repeated a line that he had offered immediately after the Vikings' loss to the Saints, stating that he was "fairly certain that he had made his decision," this time, rather than qualifying that statement with the additional statement that he was waiting to announce the decision until he was certain that he could do so "without regret," he qualified the statement by announcing that he wanted to "enjoy the off-season." Peppered with numerous references to the Vikings as "we," Favre's response to Leno's questions, culminating with the off-season comment, can only be construed to suggest that, at this point in time, Favre is certain that he will return to the Vikings in 2010.

While certainty is not Favre's calling card, there is little reason for Favre to retire at this point and every reason for him to return to what could be the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl in the 2010-2011 season.

Up Next: Options.

Would Mankins' Signing Ensure Favre's Return and Super Bowl Run for Vikings?

As a "final four" contestant in this year's NFL playoffs, the Minnesota Vikings are one of the unfortunate teams to find success in a year in which the NFL's free-agency rules punish such success. Unable to sign an unrestricted free agent until after they first lose one, and, then, only being permitted to sign an unrestricted free agent to similar terms as the terms to which the lost player signed with his new team, certainly imposes some unwanted restrictions on the Vikings in the free-agency market.

Those restrictions notwithstanding, the Vikings might actually be the beneficiary of the current hiatus from the normal modus operandi for NFL free agency. That's because of another quirk of this year's free-agent rules which has created a massive pool of restricted free agents.

In previous years, unrestricted free agents were given the freedom to test the free agent market and accept what the market offered. This year, that market will be severely dampened for many would-have-been unrestricted free-agents, who, because they have not been in the league for six or more years, find themselves in restricted status rather than the unrestricted status that they would have been in had last year's free-agency rules applied.

Sound confusing? There's more.

There are numerous possible designations for restricted free agents. The specific terms by which a team may sign away another team's restricted free agent depends on the restricted free agent's designation. That designation, depends on how long that player has been a starter in the NFL and what value the player's current team places on that player. The higher a team values one of its restricted free agents, the higher will be that team's tender to that player, the more expensive will it be for that team, or another team to sign that player, and the more draft choices will it cost a team to sign away that player.

Some players will be cheap. The Vikings, for example, hold merely a "right-of-first-refusal" on fullback Naufahu Tahi. That means that should another team tender Tahi, the Vikings would have seven days to match the offer or lose Tahi. If the Vikings lost Tahi, they would get no compensation (other than not having Tahi on the roster).

Other players are slightly more expensive. Should another team tender Tarvaris Jackson, for example, and should the Vikings subsequently opt not to match the tender, the Vikings would receive a third-round pick as compensation (the Vikings tendered Jackson an original-round tender, but, because of another offer to Fred Evans as a second-round tender, the Vikings would receive only third-round compensation should they lose Jackson).

The downside to tendering offers to one's own restricted free agents is that the level and experience of the player determines that player's compensation--regardless of what the market otherwise would bear for that player. Should the Vikings retain Jackson, for example, they would be on the hook for $1.2 million. That might not seem like much for a player who, should misfortune continue to shine its ugly head over the Minnesota franchise, might be the Vikings' starter in 2010, but it could be more than the market otherwise would bear.

Of course, the higher one scales the tender designation slotting, the more expensive it becomes both to sign away other teams' restricted free agents and to keep those restricted free agents--particularly if other teams tender them.

The upside for Minnesota in that latter respect is that the team has only two restricted free agents that it probably would care if it lost--defensive end Ray Edwards and defensive tackle Fred Evans. And the Vikings might be playing with fire by not tendering Evans at a higher level or merely reworking his contract; the same might be true of Edwards.

With respect to the cost of signing away other teams' restricted free agents, the Vikings are actually in very good position. While the Vikings may spend as much money as they desire in 2010, they can actually spend considerably less than they spent last season and still sign the players that they need to round out their squad. That's because the team continues to benefit from its "up-front contracting" of previous seasons while preparing to enjoy its most lucrative ever NFL payout. Add to these ledger benefits the fact that restricted free-agency dampens a player's market value, particularly in a year in which several teams will not be forced to meet a salary floor, thus removing a percentage of teams from the bidding process for free agents, and the Vikings face more favorable free-agent conditions than most NFL teams this season.

The only significant obstacle to the Vikings' attempt to sign restricted free agents will be the draft-pick compensation that the Vikings will owe the players' former teams. Those picks must be from this year's draft.

Among the players in whom the Vikings might have an interest could be New England guard Logan Mankins, the Patriots' 2005 first-round pick. Signing Mankins would cost the Vikings over $3.6 million and a first- and a third-round draft choice in 2010 and it would leave the Vikings with two left guards.

Assuming that either Mankins or, more likely, Steve Hutchinson, could make the transition to right guard, the signing of Mankins would substantially shore up the Vikings' offensive line and equally as certainly would ensure the return of Brett Favre for at least one more season. The move also would help erase the taint of the 2005 draft in which the Vikings selected both Troy Williamson and Erasmus James over the two-time Pro Bowl Mankins.

Although a first- and third-round pick is a high price to pay for a player in the NFL, it is absolutely worth the price when that player is still relatively young and playing a position at which players last, on average, longer than any other position in the NFL other than placekicker. It is also a reasonable price when a team selects near the bottom of the draft, as the Vikings will this season.

Up Next: Other Options and Filling Holes.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Is It Time for Vikings to Pull Off the Reverse Herschel Walker Trade?

In the late Fall of 1989, the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys consummated an 18-player trade that changed the fortunes for both franchises. The cornerstone of that exchange, from the perspective of then Vikings' general manager Mike Lynn, was the Vikings' acquisition of bruising and blazing running back Herschel Walker.

The struggling Cowboys had a different view of the chief attraction of the swap. For the Cowboys, the bargain in the deal was the large number of draft picks and players that the team received from Minnesota. In sum, the Cowboys received eight Minnesota picks, three of them first-, three of them second-rounders, as well as four starters, including Darin Nelson, who refused to report to Dallas and was shipped to San Diego.

As has been well-chronicled and further etched in the memories of all NFL general managers, past and present, is the fact that those draft picks netted the Cowboys the nucleus of what would become multi-year Super Bowl Champions. Those picks led to the selection of Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Dixon Edwards, and, by virtue of further trading of picks, Russell Maryland.

Walker finished his career in Minnesota two and one-half years later, never leading the Vikings to the Super Bowl that Lynn believed the Vikings would reach with Walker's acquisition and never rushing for over 1,000 yards. In fact, the Vikings arguably received a better return from wide receiver Jake Reed, a player with whom the Cowboys parted in the Walker deal, than they ever received from Walker, 99-yard, shoeless touchdown run notwithstanding.

Twenty-one years later, the Vikings have the opportunity to recreate the terms of the Walker deal, but in their favor.

While much has changed in the NFL since 1989 causing running backs to be less coveted than they once were, elite running backs, backs that can be assured of rushing for close to 1,500 yards and 15 or more touchdowns if used even modestly, will always be considered at a premium. And that makes Peterson, despite his late-season fumbles in 2009, one of the most coveted players in the NFL.

Three years into his NFL career, Peterson's trade value likely never will again be this high. Although the Vikings have done a good job limiting the wear on Peterson while also showcasing his talents--some more so than others--the cold reality in the NFL is that elite running backs last between five and six years, with a precipitous falloff thereafter.

Peterson's current status as an elite player, and his subsequently likely trade value, coincides with several other decisions that the Vikings need to make in this most peculiar of free-agency and off-season periods. The team clearly needs help along the offensive line and at cornerback and soon will need replacements at outside linebacker and defensive tackle. And, of course, the team needs to address the quarterback position for the long-term.

With the quirks of the 2010 free-agency period impeding the Vikings' ability to sign free agents to address all of the team's needs, the Vikings need to be creative to address short-term needs. This creativity, if properly envisioned, could also help the team address some of the longer-term needs noted above.

If the Vikings re-sign Chester Taylor, a move that the team seems increasingly likely to do, Peterson would become modestly expendable, if not entirely replaceable. Taking advantage of the admonition to sell high, the Vikings ought to at least explore the possible returns on a Peterson trade.

As fortune would have it, there is a team in this year's draft that could use a running back of Peterson's caliber, might think that Peterson is "the missing piece," and might consider parting with numerous picks and players to obtain Peterson. That team is the Seattle Seahawks.

With the sixth and fourteenth picks in the first round of this year's college entry draft, and the eighth pick in the second round, the Seahawks have much to offer the Vikings, and the Vikings much to gain from such an offer. The Seahawks would be pairing Peterson with Matt Hasselbeck, a quarterback whom the Seahawks quizzically have yet to give up on, and a corps of receivers that the Seahawks' brass seems equally puzzlingly assured of. It's the Al Davis syndrome playing out in Seattle in search only of a star-studded running back to bring it all to fruition.

Outsiders know better, of course, but what outsiders know does no harm if the insiders want to play ball. And if the Vikings can convince newly minted coach and GM Pete Carroll that Peterson is their guy, the Vikings might well be able to get much more for something very good but nowhere near as equitable in the long term.

The Vikings could use the sixth and fourteenth picks, along with their own 30th pick, to solidify the offensive line, take the quarterback of the future, pick up a bona fide All-Pro wide-receiver, and still have picks left to select a starting cornerback and starting running back in the waiting...all before the start of the second round.

The fly in the ointment to the proposed Peterson trade with Seattle is that Carroll, the man through whom any deal would have to run, was an assistant for the Vikings when the Walker trade went down. That, or the reality of the depths to which the Seahawks have fallen, might cause Carroll to pause on making a deal for Peterson. If not, perhaps Carroll will view a blockbuster Peterson trade as a measure for remedying his affiliation with the Walker deal.

If Carroll flinches, there's always an absurd deal to be had with Al Davis...

Up Next: Buying Low.