Friday, January 14, 2011

Vikings Must Treat Free Agency As Though They Are Kids in a Candy Store

Much has been made of the uncertainty surrounding the Minnesota Vikings' 2011 off-season. Skeptics point to new coaches, the likelihood of a new starting quarterback, and numerous free agents as reasons to discount the Vikings' 2011 playoff prospects. Even without the certainty that there will even be a free-agency period in 2011, those issues undoubtedly hover over the Vikings at the present.

Others, however, look at those same issues and see the potential for growth for a team that for several years standing has underperformed. The change in coaching staff provides an opportunity for someone to breathe life back into a stagnant offensive system; a new quarterback provides an opportunity to move the quarterback out of the pocket; and free agency has far more potential for upside than for downside attributable to any possible free-agent defections.

With historic numbers of high-end players, this year's free agency--assuming it occurs--will make or break several NFL franchises. That's because this year, unlike any other year, players that normally would have been due to hit free-agency over the next several years will all be signing contracts in the same year, most of them for multiple years. That means that next year and the year after will be particularly light on high-end free agents.

As bad for the Vikings as were last year's one-off free-agent signing restriction, this year's bounty of free agents could not be more propitious for Minnesota. With seventeen unrestricted free agents and uncertainty over Jim Kleinsasser's, Cedric Griffin's, and Chris Cook's futures hanging over the team, the Vikings need an influx of talent to augment an otherwise talented core of players. This year's free-agent pool more than allows Minnesota the opportunity to meet this need.

On offense, there are several players that the Vikings could add with confidence of crafting one of the best offensive units in the league. At quarterback, the Vikings have two needs, that of experienced third-string quarterback with room to grow and that of starter. As third-string quarterback, the Vikings ought to be looking at inexpensive, younger options such as Alex Smith, Tyler Thigpen, and Rex Grossman. As a veteran starter, they ought to be looking at Matt Hasselbeck and Donovan McNabb.

Although Hasselbeck has a lengthy injury history, providing him with the proper support will help alleviate that concern going forward. McNabb's issue is different, but the cure is identical. McNabb's failing is his propensity to disintegrate when pressure is applied. Given talent around him, however, McNabb is among the best in the league. If he has time and is not forced to make a play, McNabb will deliver.

To protect the quarterback, the Vikings need to bolster their running and receiving corps. That begins with either shifting Toby Gerhart to fullback or admitting that he was not what the Vikings needed at running back. Either opens a position at running back and there are many solid running backs in this year's free-agent class. Among those that should be at the top of the Vikings' list are Ahmad Bradshaw, Jason Snelling, and Kevin Smith. Bradshaw has no flaws other than the occasional fumble, Snelling is under-utilized in Atlanta, and Kevin Smith has the ability, if he can stay healthy. LeRon McClain would also provide a very nice upgrade over Naufahu Tahi at fullback.

The running game is only as potent, however, as the passing game permits it to be. For Minnesota, that passing game is predicated as much on who succeeds Brett Favre at quarterback as to whom that successor will have to throw the ball. Gone should be any receiver not named Percy Harvin or Sidney Rice. That leaves at least two openings on the roster for legitimate receivers--with one preferably a possession receiver and the other a deep threat. Steve Smith and Santonio Holmes represent outstanding possession receivers, with Holmes also a deep threat. Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, and Steve Breaston are all game breakers. Kevin Boss would be a suitable replacement for Kleinsasser, should the latter opt to retire, as some Vikings are speculating he might.

With the so-called skill positions set, the Vikings would still need to shore up their most glaring offensive weakness, the offensive line. At tackle, premier players such as Tyson Clabo, Doug Free, and Willie Colon will be hitting the market. At guard, Logan Mankins, Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph, and Alan Faneca will be available, and, at center, Olin Kreutz and Ryan Kalil should be available.

The dream scenario for Vikings' fans, and a reasonably possible prospect given that the Vikings should have loads of cash to spend on free agents, would be the following: Hasselbeck (or someone better) at quarterback, with backups Joe Webb and Rex Grossman, Adrian Peterson, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Jason Snelling at running back with LeRon McClain at fullback, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (NYG), and Steve Breaston at wide-receiver, Kevin Boss and Kleinsasser at tight end, Tyson Clabo and Doug Free at offensive tackles, Steve Hutchinson and Logan Mankins at guard, and Olin Kreutz at center.

The offense poised to be among the best in league history, the Vikings would need only spend a few more dollars to entice the final pieces of the defensive puzzle to the team.

Up Next: The Next Best Defense.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Out With The Old, In With the Gold

With this week's naming of Leslie Frazier as the new Minnesota Vikings' head football coach, the Vikings' organization has signaled two things. One is that it is at least reasonably satisfied with the direction of the defense. The other is that it will not mind and probably would prefer a change of offensive philosophy. For Vikings' fans, one out of two is better than zero out two.

Although Frazier has yet to relieve current offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell of his duties, something that the new head coach already has done with three of his coaches, rumors are circulating that Bevell is not long for his current role and may be given the choice of either accepting a tremendous pay cut and demotion to quarterback coach or moving on with his career with another team.

The early leader to fill Bevell's role appears to be former Denver Bronco head coach Josh Daniels. If you like a-holish type coaches who fail to live up to their own hype, Daniel's is perfect. If not, there are more worthy options.

Until last week, there appeared to be a range of very good options to fill Bevell's role. That was before Charlie Weiss left KC for Florida, Houston retained Gary Kubiak, San Diego retained Norv Turner, Dallas retained Jason Garrett, and the New York Giants retained Tom Coughlin. All but Coughlin stand out as far better offensive coordinators than head coaches, and all would have looked good standing beside Leslie Frazier next season.

While the list is greatly paired down, there are still two A-list or near-A list coaches in the system who would make good offensive coordinators. The clear leader in that category is Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. Philbin has an extensive coaching resume, having coached for nineteen years, with the past seven years serving as an assistant to or offensive coordinator. Over the past four seasons, the Packers have averaged more points than any Packer team over a similar stretch. Philbin accomplished this feat despite having no running back on whom he could rely and despite transitioning to a new quarterback.

The catch with Philbin is two-fold. First, he is unlikely to want to leave a good situation in Green Bay that should only get better with the maturation of the offensive line and the discovery of a running back. Second, to even discuss the role with the Philbin, the Vikings must offer him a step up in title. That means that the Vikings would have to offer Philbin an Assistant/Associate Head Coach position. That might be too close for Frazier, who will be working on a short contract, and will certainly be easy for the Packers to meet, thereby taking Philbin off of the assistant coach's market.

A near-A list possibility is former Oakland Raiders' head coach Tom Cable. Cable has made the Raiders' offense relevant despite having no true quarterback and no established wide-receiver. Cable has had the benefit of a good running game and a good offensive line, but he has made strides in areas considered outside of his offensive line expertise.

What keeps Cable off of the A-list is his propensity toward violence against those around him. For that reason alone, he is probably an animal around which the Vikings will not even sniff.

That leaves Daniels and a host of unknowns. In Daniels, the Vikings would get a coach who made Denver's offense look impressive, at least when Denver was playing the weaker teams in the league. Alas, Daniels also brings his unwarranted arrogance and difficulties dealing with players into the mix. That ought to be too great a concern for a team looking to establish offensive harmony after a season of dysfunction. And that should eliminate Daniels from consideration.

A dark horse for consideration could be Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Like Philbin, Olson would have to be offered an Assistant/Associate Head Coach position for the Vikings even to approach him. And, like Philbin, Olson might prefer to stay with an up-and-coming offense over an offense that currently is rudderless. If, however, Olson views Minnesota as a better franchise long-term, he might be willing to make the move.

The rest of the lot are coaches about whom we currently know too little to make much of an evaluation at the NFL level. Unquestionably, several coaches will emerge from this pool over the next several years, leaving fans from teams not benefiting from their services wondering why their teams did not identify the talent when the talent was still available. With the legacy of the Childress offense still weighing down the franchise and the organization still trying to curry public support for a new stadium, however, the Vikings are virtually assured of not going the route of the unknown.

Up Next: Changes on Defense?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Time for Vikings to Shed Dead Weight

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2010-2011 off-season with seventeen free agents. That's hardly the Vikings' most meaningful storyline, however, as the vast majority of those free-agents are highly expendable. Rather, the true storyline is that if the right 28 players were free agents, the Vikings would be in proper position letting all 28 walk, probably onto the street.

Among the Vikings' players not part of next year's free-agency class but meriting dismissal from the team's roster are Ryan Cook, Bryant McKinnie, Bernard Berrian, Tyrell Johnson, Madieu Williams, and John Sullivan. Combined with all but a handful of actual free-agents, the Vikings have approximately 28 players on roster with whom they should part in 2011 and an additional 2-3 players with whom they could part if they can sign that player's logical, free-agent replacement.

The following are the players that the Vikings should want to return next year and on whom they should be able to rely to produce: Adrian Peterson, Lorenzo Booker, Percy Harvin, Phil Loadholt, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams, Fred Evans, LeTroy Guion, Chad Greenway, Heath Farwell, E.J. and Erin Henderson, Jamarca Sanford, Hussain Abdullah, Chris Kluwe, Cullen Loeffler, Ryan Longwell, Sidney Rice, Steve Hutchinson, Cedric Griffin, Chris Cook, Jared Allen, and Anthony Herrera. The remainder of the squad, with the possible exception of Ben Leber, is merely dried kindling.

Having front-loaded most of their players' contracts through the years, the Vikings have the benefit not only of ample cap space from year to year but also the luxury of bidding adieu to players under contract without worrying about accelerated bonus hits to whatever salary cap the new CBA will bring. That means no worries about jettisoning McKinnie, Madieu Williams, Berrian, Johnson, Sullivan, Cook or any other under-contract players. The sole concern is first identifying a viable replacement. For most of these players, that search will not take long.

The Vikings' offensive line was woeful in 2010, allowing 36 sacks and three times snapping the ball over the quarterback's head, the secondary "led" by Williams, largely was invisible, except when getting burned, and the Vikings' rookies contributed nothing to the effort. By far the most offensive performance of the season, however, was that turned in by Bernard Berrian.

Berrian's replacement is already on the Vikings' roster. That person is any wide-receiver not named Berrian. On a team that produced only four 100-yard receivers all year, even a lame effort by Berrian would have shone brightly. Unfortunately, Berrian was not up to even that minimal standard, finishing the season with 28 receptions for 252 yards. That's 88 more receiving yards than Randy Moss had in his brief stint with the Vikings, 85 more than Toby Gerhart, and 28 fewer than Sidney Rice, meshing nicely with Berrian's zero touchdowns and two fumbles in 28 times holding the ball. Truly putrid. Berrian's pouting about how he plays injured was the cherry on top of this turd sundae.

To these players, the Vikings ought bid adieu. The question will be with whom will they replace them?