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.