Friday, March 05, 2010

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.

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