Sunday, May 15, 2011

Vikings' 2011 Fortunes Tied to Free Agency

If and when the NFL and NFL Players' Association reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, one of the more anticipated resolutions will be which players will be free agents and under what terms. The closer to the beginning of the scheduled season the negotiations become, the greater the likelihood that any agreement will greatly curtail what otherwise would have been the mother load of all NFL free-agency periods.

Assuming that all those eligible for free-agency reach the free-agent market in 2011, however, virtually any team with holes to fill will have the opportunity to do so--if they are willing to pay the cost. For Minnesota Vikings' fans, that's the most encouraging news since Bud Grant retook the reins from Les Steckel.

With gaping holes along the offensive line, at wide receiver, in the backfield, along the defensive line, and in the secondary, the Vikings could not have asked for a better time for such riches in free agency. And given the team's determination under the Wilf ownership to minimize future expenses by relying on roster, rather than pro-rated signing bonuses, the Vikings will have as much cap space as almost any team in the league, assuming the new CBA has cap stipulations.

There should be numerous high-quality players available for the Vikings to consider along both the offensive and defensive lines in this year's free-agency period. On offense, tackles Tyson Clabo (ATL) and Adam Goldberg (STL) and guards Logan Mankins (NE) and Carl Nicks (NO) should be available. Goldberg is probably best suited to play right guard, but can fill in at right tackle and left guard, if necessary. He, thus, would give the Vikings some flexibility, if not also a starter, that they have not had since he last donned purple and gold.

Clabo, too, is best suited to play on the right side, but is good enough to play any of the non-center spots along the line and certainly an upgrade at left tackle over Bryant McKinnie. Signing Clabo would give the Vikings one of the best offensive linemen in the league and give the team considerable flexibility in using its other current linemen, offering the option of moving McKinnie to the right side and pairing him in some combination with Phil Loadholt.

McKinnie also could become expendable if the Vikings make either of the above moves on exterior linemen and also sign an interior lineman. Two of the more compelling options in the interior are Mankins and Nicks. Either player would be an upgrade over either Anthony Herrera or the persistently ailing Steve Hutchinson.

Solidifying the offensive line, a unit the decline of which became increasingly noticeable when Mike Tice's departure exposed the smoke and mirrors with which Tice was forced to operate, would greatly enhance the prospects of any quarterback starting in the Vikings' backfield and ought to have the corollary effect of improving both the running and passing games.

The running and passing games would benefit, too, from an infusion of a "change-of-pace" back and a deep threat at wide-receiver. At running back, the Vikings could have numerous free-agent options, including Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG), Jerious Norwood (ATL), Joseph Addai (IND), and, on the lower end, Mewelde Moore (PIT). Bradshaw clearly is the cream of this crop, offering both a brutish and quick runner and a pass-catching threat, while Norwood, Addai, and Moore would offer a speedier, pass-catching option out of the backfield. Any of these signings at running back would make Toby Gerhart expendable--a win-win for all but Gerhart.

Pairing the addition of a speedy, pass-catching back with a speedy, strong, downfield threat would round out the Vikings' offense quite nicely, assuming that the Vikings' offensive scheme and quarterback play out as the team hopes. While there are numerous downfield threat options likely to be available in this year's free-agency, among the best are Santonio Holmes (NYJ), Malcolm Floyd (SD), and Steve Breaston (ARI). Holmes might not fit the image that the Vikings have pretended to admire under the Wilfs' ownership, Floyd might be too mercurial, and Breaston might be an injury risk, but, if any of these players plays up to their average ability, the Vikings would have a significant upgrade at the downfield threat position over even the 2009 version of Sidney Rice.

Solidifying an offense with its most substantial question mark at the most critical position will take some considerable effort by the Minnesota Vikings' front office, if and when free-agency arrives. If the team takes advantage of what should be a sizable advantage in cap space and what likely will be one of the greatest free-agency periods in NFL history, however, the Vikings could still pull off the improbable and compete with the haves of the 2011 NFL, rather than lamenting a long rebuilding cycle.

Up Next: Reshaping the Defense.

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