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.