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.