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Choose your own adventure: The many Vikings free agency paths

With little cap space to spend and needs all over the field, the Minnesota Vikings are facing the most unique offseason of the Mike Zimmer era. They have decisions to make across the board and many different avenues they could take, including pushing to stay in contention or taking a step back in order to restock the cupboard. Which route is the best for the immediate and distant future? Let’s have a look…

The Do Everything To Help Kirk Cousins Plan 

The thought process behind this path is simple: Invest largely on the offensive side and rely on Zimmer’s scheme and the development of past draft picks/undrafted free agents to fill in the gaps on the defensive side.

Let’s start with the philosophy behind it.

First, success in the NFL has always been largely determined by how well you can pass the ball but that has especially been the case over the last decade. This year the Kansas City Chiefs ranked No. 1 in Expected Points Added via pass and San Francisco finished fourth. Over the previous 10 years, only one team ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing and that team was quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.

All stats from Pro-Football Reference

Year Super Bowl Team Passing EPA Rank
2018 New England 3
Los Angeles 5
2017 Philadelphia 2
New England 1
2016 New England 2
Atlanta 1
2015 Denver 28
Carolina 8
2014 New England 2
Seattle 11
2013 Seattle 4
Denver 1
2012 Baltimore 6
San Francisco 13
2011 New York 4
New England 2
2010 Green Bay 5
Pittsburgh 16
2009 New Orleans 1
Indianapolis 3
Average 5.9

Last year the Vikings ranked ninth in passing EPA, just outside of the range of the average Super Bowl passing offense. However, if you remove 2015 Denver from the equation the average rank in passing EPA is 4.5. That gives us a pretty clear line of demarkation: If you aren’t a top five passing offense, your chances of getting to The Big Game are pretty low.

From ninth to the top five is a bigger gap than it might seem. Last year Cousins had the best year of his career in terms of quarterback rating and PFF grade and that was partly driven by one section of the schedule that he lit on fire. Over a four-week stretch against New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington the Vikings’ QB averaged nearly 11 yards per pass and posted a 137.1 rating. After that he was very much Kirk Cousins with 7.0 yards per attempt and a solid 100.1 rating.

At the Combine Zimmer pinned down exactly what it would take for Cousins to continue at a high level: Better pass protection.

With a clean pocket last season Cousins posted a 118.8 quarterback rating (per PFF), which ranked fifth in the NFL. More clean pocks means more success. And while Cousins will always bring pressure on himself by holding the ball longer (2.84 seconds) than any other QB in the NFL, a better offensive line will give him a fighting chance to improve on his pressure rate, which was 36.4% (10th highest).

So what are their options on the O-line?

The Vikings received decent tackle play from Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill last season so they could aim to improve on the left guard spot and rely on Reiff continuing to be good-not-great. But the left guard market is unimpressive outside of former Patriot Joe Thuney, who is likely to command $12-$15 million per year. Detroit’s Graham Glasgow will also be highly sought after and Denver’s Connor McGovern (10th ranked center) could be a target if he was willing to play guard. Other options like ex-Panther Daryl Williams, Andrus Peat, Mike Iupati, Michael Schofield, Ronald Leary and Stefen Wisniewski might offer league-average play, which would be an upgrade.

Cutting Reiff or restructuring his contract to make room for a left tackle (or a right tackle with a Brian O’Neill move to LT) could be a potential direction for improvement. The tackle market has both Pro Bowl level players like Jason Peters, Andrew Whitworth, Jack Conklin and Brian Bulaga and solid NFL’ers in Demar Dotson, Kelvin Beachum and Cordy Glenn.

Pittsburgh’s Matt Feiler (19th rated tackle by PFF) is a restricted free agent but the Steelers would probably do everything in their power to match any offer.

A PFF research article found that you’re essentially only as good as your worst offensive lineman so shoring up the left guard position might be more important than trying to improve on average play at left tackle. However, moving Reiff inside to guard (with a different cap hit) could be a play to fix what ails the O-line.

The Vikings already have a great group of weapons with Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Irv Smith and Kyle Rudolph but you can never have too many playmakers, as the Chiefs demonstrated when opponents found ways to slow Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins shined in the playoffs for the Chiefs.

Top free agent receivers like Robby Anderson, Amari Cooper and Emmanuel Sanders are well out of the Vikings’ price range but they still could find a way to become a more dangerous group. Kansas City’s Demarcus Robinson had 32 grabs last season, Randall Cobb proved with the Cowboys that he can be a reliable weapon with 55 grabs at 15.1 yards per catch and Tampa Bay’s Breshad Perriman gained 17.9 yards per catch on 36 receptions for Tampa Bay.

These players would act as not only extra weapons for Cousins but as insurance policies in case of injury to Diggs or Thielen, who have carried a heavy load on offense over the past four years.

The bottom line: Whether Cousins signs an extension or not, he’s overwhelmingly likely to start 2020 and if the Vikings want to take a big swing at giving him a monster supporting cast to go all-in on offense, there’s plenty of recent history to back up that theory.

The Rebuild The Defense for 2020 Plan 

Heading into the (presumed?) start of free agency the Vikings do not have a starting defensive end, nose tackle, nickel corner, safety and two outside cornerbacks. Players on the current roster who have been developed over the years like Ifeadi Odenigbo, Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and Jaleel Johnson have a strong likelihood of performing at an average level with Zimmer’s schematic assistance but it’s unlikely that the Vikings could repeat their recent defensive performances without  significant investment via free agency.

The philosophy behind it goes like this: The Vikings offense, which finished eighth in scoring, is returning nearly every player and the same scheme so it’s reasonable to expect that they will continue to be effective. But the drop from fifth to 15th in defense was a difference of 51 points last season.

It should come as no surprise that being good on the defensive side has helped teams reach the Super Bowl in recent years but it isn’t as reliable as being a great offensive team. The threshold is closer to top 10 than top five but it’s less consistent than passing offense. Kansas City ranked 18th in defensive EPA and San Francisco was fourth. Here’s the previous 10 teams that reached the Super Bowl:

Year Super Bowl Team Defensive EPA Rank
2018 New England 8
Los Angeles 17
2017 Philadelphia 3
New England 30
2016 New England 2
Atlanta 25
2015 Denver 1
Carolina 2
2014 New England 20
Seattle 4
2013 Seattle 1
Denver 21
2012 Baltimore 7
San Francisco 9
2011 New York 21
New England 16
2010 Green Bay 2
Pittsburgh 1
2009 New Orleans 6
Indianapolis 13
Average 10.5

So what are their options to ensure a top-10 defense?  There are two ways to go: Either sign one star player to a big contract and hope they make a significant impact or sign quality players at nearly all positions of need and aim to avoid major weak spots.

Option 1 does not offer many big names at key spots but PFF’s free agency tracker does have two cornerbacks in their top 10: Dallas’s Byron Jones and Denver’s Chris Harris.

With former first-rounder Mike Hughes the only semi-experienced corner on the roster now, adding Jones or Harris (at a price likely in the $15 million range) would give Zimmer one corner who can be relied upon to shut down opponents. Jones ranked as the 12th best starting corner in the NFL last season and Harris was 25th (but ranked third in 2018). Harris has often been a slot corner during his career but spent the vast majority on the outside last season, per PFF data.

The argument for going all-in on a corner is simple: Stopping the pass is the most important part of defense and the Vikings can still create all sorts of pressure with Danielle Hunter and Zimmer’s rushing scheme. We saw last year what happens when there’s an issue with outside corner: Opposing QBs will find that weakness.

The question is whether the Vikings need to spread out the cap space between two corners and a safety with Anthony Harris likely to leave in free agency. For the same amount that it would take to sign Jones or Harris the Vikings could add Cincinnati’s Darqueze Dennard (21st ranked corner), veteran Tramon Williams (24th) and 13th ranked ballhawk safety Tre Boston.

That would leave the door open to sign a nose tackle like Michael Pierce and a rotational rusher like Vinny Curry. Bringing back Everson Griffen would be on the table for this route if his contract demands are reasonable.

Statistically speaking, PFF found that defenses are similar to O-line’s in terms of being as good as your weakest piece so the plan to find multiple quality veterans to fill spots might be the best direction. Even if there is somewhat of a learning curve the Vikings have enough star talent in Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks to be a top-10 defense.

Where that leaves the Vikings short, however, is on the offensive line. They would have to hope that rookie center Garrett Bradbury takes a big step forward and that Riley Reiff continues to play at an average level and doesn’t start to fall off and that either Pat Elflein improves or a rookie left guard can handle the monsters of the NFC North.

But part of selecting this path is a lack of belief that Cousins and the offense could carry a team deep into the playoffs even with an increase in weapons or pass protection. It would rest on the hope that the defense could win one or two games along the way as it did for the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason.

The All About 2021 Plan 

Some teams’ philosophy goes like this: Free agency for immediate need, draft for the future. In this plan the Vikings would approach free agency with their mind on avoiding any multi-year deals and spending as little as possible with hopes of opening up cap space to be spenders during the 2021 offseason. It would also mean drafting the best player available (or a quarterback if they do not believe Cousins is going to sign a long-term extension, though this plan could be put into place even if Cousins is the QB in 2021 and beyond).

The philosophy behind it is simple: If the Vikings do not believe they can be legitimate contenders in 2020 because they have lost too much talent this offseason, they could take a step back to ultimately take a step forward and aim be Super Bowl contenders in 2021.

We first have to determine whether it’s justifiable to see them as non-contenders in 2020.

Of the final 53-man roster, 22 players are free agents and the Vikings have just over $20 million to work with. That means a serious overhaul even if they retain a handful of those free agents. It’s plausible that they could lose:

— A pass rusher who had 66 pressures

— The NFL’s league leader in interceptions and top ranked PFF safety

— A two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle

— Two starting outside corners and a quality nickel corner

— A rotational rusher with 31 pressures

It could easily be argued that replacing them all at once with an underwhelming free agent class and desperately drafting to fill spots for 2020 is not prudent or savvy, it’s desperate.

If the Vikings believe that to be the case, they would approach free agency with an eye on younger players who might not have gotten a chance with their previous team. For example, KC’s Emmanuel Ogbah had six sacks last season on just 251 pass rush snaps. He’s only 26 years old and is a former second-round pick.

Others that fit the bill: Former Buffalo first-round DE Shaq Lawson (26), Eagle CB Ron Darby (26), Bengal DT Andrew Billings (25), Detroit’s A’Shawn Robinson (25), Dallas DT Malik Collins (25), Denver CB Will Parks (25), Oakland CB Daryl Worley (25), NYJ CB Maurice Canaday (26).

The risk is that some of these signings might go bust but the reward is that none of them are going to lock the Vikings into big dollars and it’s possible they could develop further under Zimmer.

On the offensive side, they could still be very good with the players in place, which would mean still having a chance to compete with all sorts of uncertainty in the NFC. But it would mean drafting a tackle to develop behind Reiff and possibly letting Elflein get a chance to grow in Year 2 as a guard or replacing him with 2019 fourth-round pick Dru Samia rather than handing out a multi-year deal to a free agent.

It wouldn’t exactly be punting on 2020 because under the new CBA seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs and the Vikings have enough talent to rank in the top 10-12 on offense. It would drop the odds slightly of the Vikings competing for a Super Bowl — but whether you like the 2021 plan or not might depend on where you think those odds were to begin with.

The Let’s Get Crazy Up In Here Plan 

Our first three plans are reasonable and have a fairly high likelihood of actually happening. These five proposals have extremely low chance of coming to fruition but they are defensible.

— Trade Harrison Smith while he’s still an elite player. Yes it sounds insane but in order to get something significant back in a trade you have to part ways with good players. By moving Smith the Vikings could clear $8 million in cap space and get a multiple draft picks in return from a team desperate to win now. While it would take a short term toll on the defense, the long-term impact could be landing multiple quality players to solidify positions in question down the road.

— Trade Danielle Hunter for the No. 2 overall pick. Again, Hunter is one of the best players in the NFL and nobody wants to part ways with him but the Vikings could draft Tua Tagovailoa and let Kirk Cousins walk in free agency after 2020. They could spend like crazy in the 2021 offseason to build around their young franchise QB.

— Trade Kirk Cousins for Jimmy Garoppolo. Yep it’s wild but Kyle Shanahan has a deep appreciation for Cousins and in this case the Vikings would get a 21-5 quarterback with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt and a very reasonable contract (that they can get out of if it doesn’t work out). In sports like hockey and baseball, when teams have expiring contracts they look to move them for long-term pieces.

— Trade a second-round pick for Trent Williams and sign him to a massive contract extension (that lowers his immediate cap hit), banking on the idea that the cap will go way up in 2021 when the league kicks in the 17-game season. His age makes it risky but he’s better than any other player who’s going to protect Cousins’s blind side.

— Trade Stefon Diggs for a top-10 pick and select Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, whose projections have him as a Diggs-like player with terrific route-running skill. Best case scenario it allows the Vikings to save cap space over four years and gives them a dynamic player.

There are probably dozens more unpredictable Vikings moves that we could come up with and since it’s the Vikings, you never know.


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