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.


Cabrito said...

It's possible, even likely, that the Vikings will come to regret their decision to let Chester Taylor go. If they sign LT, obviously we'll just have to wait and see if he can serve as an adequate replacement. One thing I like about LT, though, is that he's a seasoned veteran, an all-time great, who can maybe provide some guidance to AP. The latter will be entering his fourth year in the league, but still plays much like a rookie at times. Perhaps LT can teach him a thing or two about running the ball, and especially about holding onto it.

The question I wanted to ask of you, VG, was how serviceable some of the Vikings backup running backs might be in the future. Certainly Albert Young showed a lot of talent in the preseason last year, as did another player named Ian something (I forget his last name). Care to comment on the potential value of these two, and perhaps others? I realize that so-called "third-down backs" like Taylor need to have experience and savvy to be effective, hence the pressure to acquire someone like LT. But if AP should go down, is there any chance (in your view) that one of the younger players I mentioned could replace him? Just a thought.

vikes geek said...


I agree that LT is valuable beyond his mere presence on the field. AP could use the guidance of someone who's been there and done it. LT is that guy.

I'm not overly enthused about any of the young running backs on the roster and suspect that the Vikings are not either. Suggesting that Young is a viable backup is preposterous and the team understands that, but the Vikings have had to make the claim to salvage some leverage in dealing with LT.

I suspect that the Vikings will draft a running back either in the second or third round of this year's draft or tender one of the many solid restricted free agent running backs--the latter option being much more likely if LT opts to go elsewhere (though it is not clear where else he could go at this point).


comet52 said...

Birk was a revolving door in his last year as a Vike. He was a big reason Philly clobbered the team in the playoff game at home. Sharper needs to freelance and Chilly the control freak isn't down with that in his system so regardless of how you view the front office Sharper was never staying here. Chester is all about the money, witness going to a crummy team to play in crummy weather and to back up Matt Forte. Vikes are not going to pay starter money to a 3rd down back, only a team as dumb as the Bears is going to do that.

vikes geek said...


Clearly, that is the case with Taylor. I don't blame the Vikings for passing on Taylor on those terms and I don't blame Taylor for taking money not to get hit--though I think he will play plenty in Martz's system. My only qualm with how the Vikings handled Taylor is that they probably could have extended him for much less last year at this time and they opted not to. It's not the end of the Vikings' playoff hopes, but it does create another issue that the team will need to address.

I, too, was displeased with Birk's play in 2008, but not so much so that I thought Sullivan was an upgrade. Nothing I saw in 2009 changes that opinion. But, looking ahead to 2010, I am comfortable enough with Sullivan at center not to worry about the position. The difficulty in 2009 was that Sullivan was not the only first-year starter on the line. Loadholt was a rookie, Herrera is still a work-in-progress and McKinnie is the worst best player at his position to ever walk the Earth. That made losing Birk, warts and all, all the more difficult.

Good point on Sharper. Though Sharper had his qualms with how the Vikings approach defending with the safeties (not sure if that is an oxymoron), he had indicated a desire to return for the right price. The Saints happened to offer the right price and the perfect system and the match was made and both sides--Sharper and the Vikings--seemed fine with that at the time.


Cabrito said...

Well, VG, I see that LT just signed with the Jets. That option being closed, the Vikings are going to have to scramble a bit. You suggest that they will draft a running back fairly early, but as everybody knows, rookies rarely serve as effective third-down backs because they lack the necessary savvy. As for the "many solid restricted free-agent running backs" still available, who would you recommend at this point? It seems to me that the Vikings have painted themselves into a corner and can't easily escape it. Good luck next year. Maybe Brett will sense their incompetence and pack it in.